Screenshot of Arabic sample ballot for City of Dearborn, Michigan, Precinct 1, for November 8, 2022 election from the city...

Why Arabic ballots are now being offered in Michigan and what this means for voter access in the U.S.

Three days before the inauguration of President Trump, Nada Al-Hanooti’s mother, who was born in a Syrian refugee camp and speaks very little English, was able to take and pass the U.S. citizenship test. Although she was able to naturalize in Arabic, when it came time for her to vote for the first time, she needed to bring her daughter with her to translate her ballot.

That reality changed this past August, when the cities of Dearborn and Hamtramck in Michigan, began providing ballots in Arabic for the first time in the state’s history.

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“Yes, we can have translators at the polls, but for me, I want my community to vote with dignity,” Al-Hanooti, executive director of Emgage’s Michigan chapter, an organization that educates and mobilizes Muslim American voters, told the NewsHour. While not all Arab Americans are Muslim and not all Muslims are Arab American, groups like Emgage and others reach the Arab American community through their Arabic language outreach. “Imagine having someone like my mom — who was born in a refugee camp in Syria, and came here, and got her citizenship three days before Trump’s inauguration — [who] walks in there, taking up space and voting by herself. In her language. That is so powerful and beautiful.”

“[That is] the meaning of our democracy. Getting a person like my mother that opportunity to vote in her language and be part of our political system, and having her be able to vote for people who represent her,” she added.

Emgage organizers gather around Nada Al-Hanooti, Emgage Michigan executive director, before knocking on doors in Metro Detroit communities before August 2022 primaries. Photo courtesy of Emgage.

Emgage organizers gather around Nada Al-Hanooti, Emgage Michigan executive director, before knocking on doors in Metro Detroit communities before August 2022 primaries. Photo courtesy of Emgage.

Dearborn is a suburb of Detroit, Michigan’s largest city, and, is affectionately referred to as the “capital of Arab America” and recently elected its first Muslim and Arab American mayor, Abdullah Hammoud. According to the US Census Bureau 2020 American Community Survey (ACS), Dearborn’s population of 108,000 is estimated to be 45 percent Arab American. In addition, nearly 30 percent of people are foreign born, and just more than half the population speaks a language other than English in their home. Nearly half of Dearborn residents over 5 years of age speak English “less than very well,” according to the city.

Hamtramck, a suburb within Detroit’s city limits, also has a large Arab American population. In 2021, it became the first city in America to elect an all Muslim American City Council. Hamtramck voters also just elected the city’s first Muslim and Arab American mayor, Amer Ghalib, after a century of only electing Catholic and Polish American mayors. Hamtramck has a population of 28,000, with a large Yemeni American community. According to U.S. Census figures, 40 percent of residents are foreign born, and 71 percent of people over 5 years old speak a language other than English at home. The city is developing a Limited English Proficiency Plan.

“It’s important that our democracy continue to be accessible and secure for every Michigan voter,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in a statement. “In a moment where there are so many efforts to divide and deter citizen engagement, it’s inspiring to see Dearborn, Hamtramck and Wayne County leadership come together to show government can be responsive to citizens’ needs and deliver results. Their work will directly help citizens in their communities be informed and engaged voters, and our state’s democracy will be healthier as a result.”

Section 203 and 208 of the Voting Rights Act

In 1975, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was amended to mandate language assistance, including the translation of election materials and ballots for certain language minority communities that had a history of unequal education opportunities which resulted in high illiteracy and low voting participation.

The threshold for determining if translated election materials are required is if more than 5 percent of voting age citizens are limited English proficient, or more than 10,000 voting age citizens are limited English proficient, and the rate of total voting age citizens that are limited English proficient and have less than a fifth grade education is higher than the national rate. Since 2006, a new determination is made every five years regarding which state, city, or county subdivisions are covered, based on the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey.

Not all languages are covered, though. Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act only applies to language minority groups that speak Asian, American Indian, Alaska Native, and Spanish languages. It is intended as a structural remedy for communities that have suffered a history of exclusion from the political process.

Arabic is not covered under those parameters set out in the Voting Rights Act. Neither is Haitian Creole, Native Hawaiian, any Pacific Islander languages, any African languages, or any European languages.

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One reason Arabic is not included in the Voting Rights Act is because Arab Americans are designated as white on the U.S. Census. There has been a substantial push in recent decades to create a new census category for people of Middle Eastern and North African descent, in part to be better able to collect data and provide services for this demographic.

However, in the early 1900s, Arab immigrants pushed against being categorized as Asian, though the Middle East is located on the western part of the Asian continent, because of discriminatory laws that prevented Asians from becoming citizens and owning land in the U.S. After the Civil War, the Naturalization Act of 1870 extended citizenship to people of African descent, but it did not allow Asians or Native Americans to become citizens. So-called Alien Land Laws would later be enacted in several states that would bar Asian immigrants from owning land in the U.S.

“In the early 1900s Arab immigrants were in a precarious position. Only white and Black people were able to become citizens,” Matthew Jaber Stiffler, Arab American National Museum research and content manager, told the NewsHour. “Because the Naturalization Act excluded Asians, the Arab immigrant community raised money and fought in courtrooms and on newspaper editorial pages for many years to prove their whiteness. Eventually the federal government recognized that Arabs and other people of the Middle East were white, which is where we are at today, even as popular culture and political rhetoric has portrayed Arabs as anything other than white for many decades.”

In a 1909 court case, George Shishim, whose race was considered Chinese/Mongolian because he was born in Lebanon, argued in federal court, “If I am a Mongolian, then so was Jesus, because we came from the same land.” In response to this case, U.S. citizenship was allowed for Lebanese, Syrians, and all Arabs, distancing them from the discriminatory practices that would remain against Asians in the United States until 1952 .

Today, because data about Arab Americans are mixed in with white populations, it can be difficult to clearly see the community and understand its challenges.

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Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act allows voters who need assistance voting because of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write English, to bring anyone — except their employer or union representative — into the voting booth with them to help. There are no restrictions of age or citizenship. “You can bring a family member, a neighbor – nearly anyone you trust in your community – to help you cast your vote,” according to Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC. Sometimes community organizations provide translators in key languages at the polls to help anyone who needs assistance, regardless of party affiliation. Some communities provide sample ballots in their respective languages. However, for communities with growing populations that need language assistance, some feel that translators and sample ballots are not enough.

“Several cities across the U.S. have pushed for language assistance provisions at the local level, but currently there is no language designation for Middle East and North African [MENA] communities within the [Voting Rights Act] VRA,” Rima Meroueh, director of the National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC), a growing network of independent Arab American community-based organizations around the country, told the NewsHour. “The lack of protections of MENA communities in the VRA has caused MENA communities to be cracked in the redistricting process, diluting the vote and power of the community. Furthermore, the lack of MENA protection in the VRA has meant a lack of access to election related materials for MENA communities across the country.”

The NNAAC says it is working to help develop a holistic approach for Middle Eastern and North African inclusion within the federal government, including language access, redistricting, and a distinct racial category.

Getting translated ballots for Dearborn and Hamtramck

Because Arabic is not covered by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act and because the U.S. Census does not track the number of Arab Americans in a community, there are no federal mandates to provide Arabic ballots.

There are also no laws against printing or providing Arabic ballots. So even though the Voting Rights Act does not include a particular language or when the number of a language minority community does not reach the 5 percent or 10,000 person threshold, a city or county is free to provide translated ballots in whatever languages it wishes.

The Michigan Secretary of State also provides voting information in other languages including Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, Amharic, Somali, French, Korean, Vietnamese, and Russian.

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In Dearborn, although Arabic sample ballots and translators have been available at polls for years, a coalition of local nonprofit organizations – including Emgage, ACCESS, Voters Not Politicians, League of Conservation Voters, Michigan Voices, and others – reached out to the city clerk to try to get actual ballots translated into Arabic, but they were told that there was no need. “We’re all just slapping our hands on our foreheads,” Al-Hanooti said, “What is this? What do you mean there’s no need? Who is telling you this? So we quickly realized it wasn’t ideology issue for our city clerk.”

Instead, they bypassed the city clerk and went directly to Dearborn’s city council.

Dearborn councilperson Mustapha Hammoud recognized the challenges that many Dearborn voters faced reading ballots. He proposed a bill to mandate translated ballots for languages not included in the Voting Rights Act, which was passed unanimously by the council, with support from the mayor and secretary of state. Right now, that means providing Arabic ballots, but the law was written to be inclusive of other languages that might be needed by the community in the future.

“The law we passed mandates translated ballots in any language that meets the threshold normally mandated by the Voting Rights Act, but is inclusive of more languages,” Councilperson Hammoud told the NewsHour. “In Dearborn, this has the effect of implementing bilingual [Arabic] ballots, since Dearborn far surpasses the 5 percent or 10,000 person threshold for Arabic language spoken at home. Additionally, other materials such as affidavits and applications are translated as well.”

He said that reaction to the translated Arabic ballots, which were first used in the August primary election, has been positive. “People were happy their city recognized and finally responded to their needs,” Hammoud said. “It’s a victory for voter access, and the integration of our residents into our democratic process.”

Dearborn City Hall and official ballot drop box, Dearborn, Michigan, Sept. 18, 2021. Photo Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Dearborn City Hall and official ballot drop box, Dearborn, Michigan, Sept. 18, 2021. Photo Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

For Hamtramck, Bengali language ballots have been required by the Voting Rights Act for some time because of its large Bangladeshi American community, although it took years of poll watching and a lawsuit from Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) to enforce it. This year, Hamtramck’s city council voted to mandate Arabic ballots, as well as to translate all election materials and instructions into Arabic, even though Arabic is not a language included in the Voting Rights Act.

“This is a big step toward improving community engagement in the election process,” Hamtramck Mayor Amer Ghalib said in a statement. “It makes it easy for people to understand the ballots and make the right choices and will decrease the number of voided ballots. This is a historic moment for the Arab community, especially in Hamtramck and Dearborn, and we look forward to seeing the positive impact it brings to our community.”

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Many other communities who are also interested in providing Arabic ballots have been reaching out to Dearborn nonprofit organizations to learn how they did it.

“We have had many Arab American nonprofits across the country reach out to get support on how to get their cities and counties to translate ballots to Arabic,” Meroueh said. “NNAAC is currently creating a guide and training on how to approach and accomplish this in different cities and states.”

More than just ballots, voter education is needed too

Getting out the vote is more than just having Arabic ballots. It still requires a degree of voter education to be taken to residents.

“I love local elections,” Al-Hanooti said. “I think it’s the sexiest thing ever because that’s where real change happens on the local level.”

As midterm elections loom, Al-Hanooti and her team are busy telling voters in Dearborn and Hamtramck that they have the option to vote using Arabic ballots so they no longer need to wait for a translator. But, they are also finding that some voters do not know that there is an election coming up and some do not know the hours the polls are open. Other voters are telling them that no other candidate or political action committee (PAC) has ever before knocked on the door or reached out. Other voters are distrustful of the government.

Emgage national organizing director Mohamed Gula (L) and another organizer preparing to knock on doors in Metro Detroit communities before the August 2022 primaries. Photo courtesy of Emgage.

Emgage national organizing director Mohamed Gula (L) and another organizer preparing to knock on doors in Metro Detroit communities before the August 2022 primaries. Photo courtesy of Emgage.

“Our [Black, indigenous, and people of color] BIPOC communities are not educated and that’s not our fault. It’s because Democratic parties, Republican parties do not come to us,” Al-Hanooti said. “They never came to us. They never knocked on the door. They never called us. They never surveyed us. There’s no education in our communities because they did not invest in us.”

“We are planting the seeds right now. This work is going to be generational,” Al-Hanooti added. Having someone at the door who looks like the voter and speaks the voter’s language and listens to the voter’s concerns makes a difference, but she says it will take years to see the results of this outreach because it is so new.

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She points to heavy air pollution and high rates of cancer and asthma as pressing issues on the south, industrial side of Dearborn as well as homes flooding on the east side of the city — both areas where the Arab American population is concentrated — as reasons to continue fighting for good representation and strong policies.

“Those floods would have never happened in Dearborn if we had the proper representation on City Council allocating our tax dollars appropriately,” Al-Hanooti said. “It was mismanaged and it was allocated predominantly to the caucasian community leaving us BIPOC communities living in mold.”

Getting out the vote by changing the culture of voting

“The Muslim community historically has been a low propensity voting community,” Mohamed Gula, Emgage national organizing director, told the NewsHour. “What that means is that they don’t vote often. They normally either vote every general presidential election, or they don’t vote at all.”

As a result, people’s voter registrations are often not up to date. Voter outreach can be difficult because they do not have the right phone number or address in their voter file, or the Democratic and Republican parties have not collected the right kind information for Muslim and Arab American communities. However, with so many close races, turning out a new community of voters could be the margin that changes election outcomes.

“The process of turning out the vote was actually the hardest part, and it wasn’t necessarily just whether or not folks had access to that ballot,” Gula said. Some of this is due to people coming from countries where they did not have the right to vote or a culture of voting.

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Once people do get to the polls, he wants to make sure that they know all their local, state, and federal rights in case someone tries to interfere with their right to vote. Gula also wants to help community members begin to recognize the connection between voting and policies that are important to the community.

“My biggest job is not necessarily to turn out votes. My biggest job is to create the social change where our communities look at voting differently and they own it,” Gula said. “There is a correlation between our policies not being heard and the realities that we are a low propensity voting community. My job is to ensure that we move from low to high so that now our issues do matter.”

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