A mistake on Michigan’s Arabic ballots presents a challenge for non-English-speaking voters

A mistake on Michigan’s Arabic ballots presents a challenge for non-English-speaking voters

A mistake on Michigan’s Arabic ballots presents a challenge for non-English-speaking voters


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

Arabic-language ballots in Dearborn, Mich., had an error in instructions for one section, city clerk announced On November 4, leading officials attached a written statement explaining the error in the Arab ballots used in the week before Election Day.

Although the typo only affected 34 Dearborn voters who requested an absentee ballot in Arabic before it was caught, the incident underscores the struggle in jurisdictions with large groups of eligible voters with limited English skills amid an ongoing effort to expand countries approach multiple languages ​​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 aimed at increasing voter turnout in the United States.

Offered for the first time during the midterm elections, Dearborn’s Arabic-language ballots had an error in the “Supreme Court Justice” section, which 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 didn’t change their Arabic-language ballot may not have cast their ballots for more candidates when they could have.

The D.C. Board of Elections has acknowledged a mistake on Spanish-language electronic ballots

The use of Arabic ballots for the first time in Dearborn arose from a the resolution introduced by city councilor Mustapha Hammoud that required access to election materials in any language spoken at home by at least 10,000 residents, or 5 percent of the population, based on census data.

The city has one of the highest percentages of Arab Americans in the United States — and Arabic was the only language to pass a language ballot resolution requirement in this year’s primary and general elections.

Languages ​​including Arabic, Farsi, Haitian Creole and others are not covered by federal law. The Voting Rights Act protects linguistic minority groups, but limits them to “persons who are American Indian, Asian American, Alaska Native, or of Spanish descent”.

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

“Nothing prevents election officials, as a matter of policy, from offering materials and information in additional languages,” Kanter Cohen said.

In September, Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) introduced the bill which would allow election materials to be published in those additional languages ​​and fund state and local officials in the effort.

The Dearborn City Council approved a voting rights resolution in March, the same month it was introduced, meaning Arabic-language ballots will be in use during the August primary and November midterms. The resolution was adopted after an “intense debate” about the costs and lack of time for its implementation Detroit Free Press registered.

It’s not clear exactly how the mistake was made, but City Council President Mike Sareini said the deadline for voting in Arabic was short. Going forward, he said, Dearborn officials will seek to learn from other cities that use minority-language ballots to make the process “as seamless as possible.”

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

Starting Over in Dearborn, Michigan: The Arab Capital of North America

Like Dearborn, communities across the country have been working for years to introduce new language cards despite obstacles.

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. The move comes after California Secretary of State Shirley Weber reinstated a minority language designation that expired in 2021.

Jeanine Erikat, policy director at the Partnership for New American Progress, said her fears are particularly focused on diverse border counties such as San Diego County.

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

Erikat said she also hopes to see official ballots, not just facsimiles, in multiple languages ​​in future elections.

2018 nonpartisan citizen groups in Florida filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to order state and local officials to deliver Spanish-language ballots. The lawsuit alleges that Florida’s secretary of state and other officials violated the voting rights of thousands of Puerto Ricans who moved there after Hurricane Maria.

Florida lawsuit seeks translation of ballots into Spanish, alleges voting rights violations affecting Puerto Ricans

In September 2018, a judge ruled in favor of the groups, ordering 32 counties to submit sample Spanish-language ballots but not requiring official ballots due to a lack of time before the midterm elections.

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

“This is a nonpartisan issue,” Galindo said. “This is something about a fair approach, that voting and democracy are not conditional on English fluency.”

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 assigned to help with the city’s Arabic language ballots.

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

“I’ve been covering Arab American news for 38 years and I know my community has not participated [in elections] for not knowing enough English to make an important choice,” he said.

Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.

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