Error on Arabic ballots in Michigan spotlights challenge for non-English-speaking voters

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An error on Arabic-language ballots, a new offering for voters in a Michigan city with a large Arab American population, spotlights a need for expanded voting access for Americans with limited English proficiency — and the challenges that come with it.

Arabic-language ballots in Dearborn, Mich., had an error in the instructions for one section, the city’s clerk announced on Nov. 4, leading officials to attach a written statement explaining the mistake on Arabic ballots used in the week leading up to Election Day.

Although the typo affected only 34 Dearborn voters who had requested Arabic absentee ballots before it was caught, the incident underscores the struggles in jurisdictions with large groups of eligible voters who have limited English proficiency amid an ongoing nationwide push for more language access on ballots and in other election materials. Legal experts say election administrators should pay attention to the need for non-English voting materials, a nonpartisan issue aiming to increase voter turnout in the United States.

Offered for the first time during midterm elections, Dearborn’s Arabic-language ballots had a mistake in the “Justice of Supreme Court” section, which had instructed voters to select “not more than one” when it should have said “not more than two.” “

This year, Michigan had two open Supreme Court seats and five candidates on the ballot, meaning people who did not change their submitted Arabic-language ballot may not have cast their vote for multiple candidates when they could have.

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The use of Arabic ballots for the first time in Dearborn was born out of a resolution introduced by city councilman Mustapha Hammoud that required access for election materials in any language spoken at home by a minimum of 10,000 residents or 5 percent of the population, based on census data, whichever threshold is met first.

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The city has one of the highest percentages of Arab Americans in the United States — and Arabic was the only language that passed the resolution’s requirement for non-English-language ballots in this year’s primary and general elections.

Languages ​​including Arabic, Farsi, Haitian-Creole and others are not covered under federal law. The Voting Rights Act protects language minority groups, but restricts them to “persons who are American Indian, Asian American, Alaskan Natives or of Spanish heritage.”

This often puts an onus on state and local leaders to expand election materials for their constituents who speak languages ​​falling outside of federal law, said Michelle Kanter Cohen, policy director and senior counsel at the Fair Elections Center, a nonpartisan voting rights organization.

“There’s nothing preventing election officials, policywise, from offering materials and information in additional languages,” Kanter Cohen said.

In September, Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) introduced a bill that would allow the publication of election materials in those additional languages ​​and fund state and local officials in the effort.

The Dearborn City Council approved the voting rights resolution in March, the same month it was introduced, meaning Arabic-language ballots would be in use during primaries in August and midterms in November. The resolution was approved after “intense debate” about the costs and lack of time to implement it, the Detroit Free Press reported.

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It’s unclear how exactly the mistake was made, but City Council President Mike Sareini said the timeline for the Arabic-language ballots was tight. Moving forward, he said, Dearborn officials will seek to learn from other cities that use minority-language ballots to make the process “as flawless as possible.”

“There was an oversight,” Sareini said. “And we’re going to work hard to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Starting over in Dearborn, Michigan: The Arab capital of North America

Like Dearborn, other communities across the country have worked for years to introduce new language ballots despite the barriers.

This year, San Diego County voters for the first time had access to Persian and Somali facsimile ballots, which are translated sample ballots to use as a reference when filling out English-language ballots. The move came after California Secretary of State Shirley Weber reinstated minority-language determinations that had expired in 2021.

Jeanine Erikat, the policy lead at the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, said her fears were particularly focused on diverse border counties such as San Diego County.

“Our community is so excited to have facsimile, or reference, ballots in their own language and to be able to learn about elections and measures,” Erikat said. “I know that California really is setting a precedent for other states on this, and it’s something I’d love to see across the nation.”

Erikat said she also hopes to see official ballots, not just facsimile ones, in more languages ​​in future elections.

In 2018, nonpartisan civic groups in Florida filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to order state and local officials to provide Spanish-language ballots. The suit alleged that Florida’s secretary of state and other officials were violating the voting rights of thousands of Puerto Ricans who moved there after Hurricane Maria.

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In September 2018, the judge ruled in the groups’ favor, ordering 32 counties to provide Spanish-language sample ballots, but stopped short of requiring official ballots because of the lack of time before the midterm elections.

“It really requires constant advocacy and vigilance and community engagement, even when we make gains,” said Miranda Galindo, senior counsel for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit.

“This is a non-partisan issue,” Galindo said. “This is something about having fair access, that voting and democracy are not conditional on being fluent in English.”

For decades, Osama Siblani, who lives near Dearborn and is the publisher of the Arab American News, has published election information in Arabic. He was one of three volunteers who were commissioned to help with the city’s Arabic-language ballots.

Despite the mishap this year, Siblani said he is waiting to see if the translated ballots and election materials will have a tangible effect on the community’s voting numbers.

“I have been publishing the Arab American News for 38 years and I know my community was not participating [in elections] because of the lack of knowing the English language enough to make an important choice,” he said.

Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.

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