Latinos are a growing political force in Philadelphia politics. And a record number of them are running for City Council this year, with five Democratic candidates among the dozens vying for at-large seats and two for the heavily Hispanic 7th District.
It will also be a momentous year for another reason: All their names will be spelled correctly.
Ever since switching to the current voting machine system in 2002, Philly’s ballots haven’t displayed accented characters, hyphens, or apostrophes.
Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez, the city councilwoman in the 7th District? QUINONES SANCHEZ, no Ñ, no Á, no hyphen.
The problem didn’t affect only Latinos, either — Brian J. O’Neill, city councilman in the 10th District, has for years shown up on the ballot as O NEILL.
“It has an accent over the O,” she said Wednesday after raising the issue with staffers from the city commissioners’ office.
“I’m asking for my name to be representative of who I am. And culturally, as a Latina, that’s very important to me,” Almirón said. “Almiron without the accent on the o … feels a little bit like an erasure.”
Deputy City Commissioners Nick Custodio and Seth Bluestein, speaking with Almirón after Wednesday’s city commissioners meeting, said they didn’t believe it was technically possible to use accented characters — that they would cause problems with the tallying of absentee, provisional, and machine votes.
They’d look into it, they said, but they didn’t think it could happen.
Almirón urged them to find a way: “It’s an equity issue.”
Thursday night, after testing the system, city commissioners staffers figured out a fix that, while not a systemic solution, will be good enough: They’ll manually change the way names are stored. Voters will see the accented characters on the ballot, while the actual names will be stored electronically without them in the results.
It only fixes the problem for one election, but that’s all the commissioners needed. The city is buying new machines that will allow accented characters on their touchscreen; the old machines will be retired after the May 21 primary.
“I’m super excited that my name is going to be reflected exactly how it should be — which is my name,” Almirón said Friday morning after learning the commissioners had figured out a workaround.
Accents represent much more than small marks, candidates said — they signal to Hispanic candidates and voters that they are included in the city and its politics.
“If we really want to be a global city, if we really want to be an inclusive city, we should take care of the little details,” said Treviño, who is also the only immigrant running. “It’s not only about the tilde on my last name or the accent on Erika’s. … This is about making sure immigrants from all over the world that speak a different language can actually vote.”
Elections officials called him Friday morning. "They asked if I wanted my last name spelled Treviño,” he wrote in an email. “I said yes, of course.”
Staffers are reaching out to candidates who may want accented characters, apostrophes, or hyphens to appear with their names, Custodio said.
It’s unclear how often the accent question has been raised in the city.
Quiñones-Sánchez said she brought it up when she first ran for Council in 1999, but the commissioners shrugged her off. Plus, the lever machines were so old she wasn’t sure they could be fixed.
When she ran again successfully in 2007 and for reelection the last two cycles, she chose to let it go.
It was just another exclusionary signal, she said, even in the United States’ first World Heritage City, where one in seven residents is Latino.
“We’re not really global yet,” Quiñones-Sánchez said. “We’re struggling with that.”
Díaz, the former city solicitor and Common Pleas Court judge, said it becomes tiring to correct others over and over again on how to properly spell or pronounce a name. His name was accent-less on ballots three times for judge and once for mayor in the 2015 primary.
He recalled how his predominantly Irish classmates and teachers would mispronounce his name, often turning it into Dee-ass.
“How many times am I going to correct you on how to pronounce my name?” he said. “But it really is pretty offensive. … It’s like I was an ass instead of Díaz.”
Díaz pointed out the city now has bilingual ballots, with English and properly-accented Spanish parties, offices, instructions, ballot questions — and now, candidates.
It may require work, Díaz said, but it’s simple: “It’s just a matter of respect.”
“Our names are tied to our identities, our culture, our ethnicity, and that makes it important,” said Deja Lynn Alvarez. “For someone to dismiss that in any form is disrespectful. Identity is a big thing in 2019. It plays a big part in who we are and what we do.”
Ken Trujillo, a former city solicitor, said growing up hearing his name mispronounced, he understands the importance of proper accentuation.
The conversation shows an evolution in Latino politics in Philly, Trujillo said. He recalled Latino friends running for office 20 years ago hopeful the lack of an accent might help them. “They hoped to confuse South Philly voters that they were Italian,” Trujillo said.
Now there’s a push for accentuation, a flex of Latino political power.
“Candidates are increasingly courting the Latino vote,” he said. “The Latino vote is becoming a major difference-maker in elections.”