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

Explanation

Errors in Arabic ballots, a new proposal for voters in a Michigan city with a large Arab American population, highlight the need for expanded voting access for Americans with limited English, and the challenges that come with it.

Arabic ballots in Dearborn, Mich., had error in precinct instructions, the city clerk’s office announced Nov. 4 that officials are attaching a written statement explaining the error in Arabic ballots used in the week before the election. day

Although the error only affected 34 Dearborn voters who had requested absentee ballots in Arabic before being caught, the incident has sparked a battle in precincts with large groups of eligible voters with limited English skills amid a nationwide push for greater availability of language in ballots and other election materials. Legal experts say election officials should focus on the need for non-English voting materials, a nonpartisan issue aimed at increasing voter turnout in the United States.

Dearborn’s Arab ballots, which were first offered in the midterm elections, contained an error in the “Supreme Court Justice” section that instructed voters to select “not more than one” when they should have chosen “not more than two” was said. »

This year, Michigan had two open Supreme Court seats and five candidates on the ballot, meaning people who didn’t turn in their Arabic-language ballots may have missed out on voting for several candidates when they had the chance.

The D.C. Board of Elections acknowledged the error in Spanish-language electronic ballots

The use of Arabic ballots for the first time in Dearborn was prompted by a resolution proposed by City Councilman Mustafa Hammoud to make election materials available in any language spoken at home by at least 10,000 residents, or 5 percent of the population. census data, each threshold first matches.

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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 ballots in this year’s primary and general elections.

Languages ​​including Arabic, Farsi, Haitian Creole, etc. are not covered under federal law. The Voting Rights Act protects language minority groups, but limits them to “persons of American Indian, Asian American, Alaska Native, or Hispanic heritage.”

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

“There is nothing to prevent election officials from providing policy-related 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 these additional languages ​​and provide funding to state and local agencies for those efforts.

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

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It’s not clear exactly how the error occurred, but City Council President Mike Sareini said the schedule for conducting ballots in Arabic is tight. Going forward, he said, Dearborn officials will try to learn from other cities that use minority-language ballots to make the process “as seamless as possible.”

“It was under control,” Sareyni said. “And we will work hard to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

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

Like Dearborn, other communities around the country worked to introduce new language ballots despite obstacles.

This year, San Diego County voters for the first time have access to facsimile ballots in Persian and Somali, with translated sample sheets used to fill out the English forms. The move comes after California Secretary of State Shirley Weber reinstated minority language provisions that were set to expire in 2021.

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

“Our community is excited to have facsimile ballots or brochures in their own language and to be able to find information about elections and events,” Ericat said. “I know California has really set an example for other states on this, and that’s something I want to see across the country.”

Erikat said he also hopes to see official ballots in more languages ​​than just facsimiles in future elections.

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

Florida lawsuit seeks translation of Spanish-language ballots in violation of Puerto Ricans’ voting rights

In September 2018, a judge ruled in favor of the groups, ordering 32 counties to submit Spanish-language ballots, but stopped requiring official ballots due to lack of time before the midterm elections.

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

Galindo said: “This is a non-partisan issue. “It’s about fair access to voting and democracy, not necessarily knowing good English.”

For decades, Osama Siblani, who lives near Dearborn and is the publisher of the American Arabic newspaper, has published election information in Arabic. He was one of three volunteers assigned to help with Arabic ballots in the city.

Despite this year’s crash, Siblani said he expects the translated ballots and election materials to have a noticeable impact on the public’s turnout.

“I’ve been publishing Arab American News for 38 years, and I know that my community has not been involved. [in elections] because not knowing English well enough to make an important choice,” he said.

Arelis R. Hernandez contributed to this report.

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