Arabic language

Michigan cities offer Arabic-language ballots ahead of midterms

One of the largest and fastest growing Muslim and Arab American communities in the United States lives and works in Dearborn, Michigan.

“Arabs make up nearly half the city,” Osama Siblani said of his adopted hometown, a Detroit suburb of about 110,000 that is home to, among other things, the National Arab American Museum and the offices of the Arab American News of Sibani, of Lebanese origin. . “We are the oldest, largest Arab-American publication in the country.”

Since Siblani launched the bilingual weekly publication in the 1980s, each election has brought unique challenges to its growing community, many of whom were recent immigrants — and new American citizens — just learning English.

“I came here in 1976 and I’m having trouble writing and reading some of these proposals and understanding them,” he told VOA.

Over the years, many have turned to The Arab American News and other community organizations, like ACCESS, or the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, to figure out who — and what — was on their English ballots.

“Arabic is not a language covered by the Voting Rights Act,” said University of Michigan political science professor Dale Thomson, adding that access to the ballot for those who are not not considered one of the protected classes in the version of the historic Voting Rights Act that Congress amended in 1975 incumbent upon local elected officials. “It’s largely an optional thing that clerks can do if they decide it serves the voting population well in their particular community. There’s no requirement to do it.”

For decades in Dearborn, despite an overwhelming need for access to Arabic-language ballots, there was also no political will to do so.

So far.

In Michigan’s primary elections in August, for the first time, voters in Dearborn were able to access official Arabic-language ballots to cast their ballots.

“The reason for that is that the culture has changed,” Siblani said, due to changes in local elected leaders reflecting the changing ethnic and cultural makeup of the community.

“The actual number of people who speak Arabic at home has increased dramatically over the past 10 to 15 years,” said Mustapha Hammoud, elected to the Dearborn City Council in 2021.

He added that a lot of things contributed.

“A confluence of political abilities and much like the times being more tolerant of voter access,” he said. “Having our first Arab-American mayor. Have a council more favorable to this kind of measures.

“The general conversation has evolved over time in America about the importance of voter accessibility and including people in our democracy,” he added.

Shortly after being sworn in, Hammoud drafted a bill to provide official election materials translated into all languages ​​spoken by more than 5% of the city’s population, or 10,000 people in total.

The measure was passed unanimously earlier this year.

“There are states like California that already have things like this in place,” Hammoud said. “For this step to be taken in Dearborn, it just seemed like common sense to me.”

Midterm election voters can also now access Arabic-language ballots in Hamtramck, a Detroit suburb with a large Yemeni immigrant population.

“I hope to see at least that over time and in the near future that it will be expanded statewide in Michigan,” said Nadia Alamah, voter outreach program coordinator for the nonprofit. Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote Michigan.

Alamah’s parents immigrated from Lebanon and settled in Flint, Michigan, a place where she would like to have access to Arabic ballots.

“It’s good for us to have this everywhere because that way we have the opportunity for our community to feel at home all over America,” she told VOA.

While the midterm election isn’t the first in Dearborn to use Arabic-language ballots, it may provide the best indication yet of its impact, given the low turnout in the nation’s primary elections. Michigan in August.