‘Better for democracy’: Two US cities offer Arabic voting ballots

Dearborn, Michigan, US – For the first time in US history, voters in the Detroit area were able to access Arabic ballots in a state-organised election, a move that advocates hope will increase turnout and political engagement in the Arab-American community.

The ballots were available in the southeast Michigan cities of Dearborn and Hamtramck, just outside Detroit – home to large Arab populations – in the state’s primary on Tuesday.

“The question is: Why not? In a community where you know that roughly 50 percent of households speak a second language, primarily Arabic, why would you not offer greater accessibility to those who want to participate in our democracy? And that was really the premise behind the whole thing,” Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud, who helped lead the push for the Arabic ballots, told Al Jazeera.

In its 2004 presidential caucus in Michigan, the Democratic Party provided Arabic ballots. On Tuesday, they were available in government-arranged elections. The ballots provided the description of races and text of proposals in Arabic, but the names of the candidates were in English.

Arabic ballot
Arabic ballot available in Dearborn, Michigan during the August 2 primary elections [Al Jazeera]

Congress amended the US Voting Rights Act in 1975 to require governmental entities organising elections in areas with a significant number of residents who speak English as a second language to provide “language minority ballots”. So non-English ballots have been available in US elections for decades.

But the law did not include Arab Americans amongst historically disenfranchised community groups that it intended to protect. The communities specified in the legislation are “American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Spanish-heritage citizens”.

The fact that Arabs are counted as white on the US Census made it more difficult for advocates to lobby for Arabic ballots.

This year, local leaders in Dearborn and Hamtramck worked with county and state election officials to overcome those barriers.

“Sometimes, governments limit themselves based on what is written on paper,” Hammoud said.

“The Voting Rights Act did not recognise the Middle Eastern and North African community as a federally protected minority community. So typically, governments say, ‘Oh, you’re not recognised; therefore, you can’t.’ In this example, we said, let’s use that as a framework, so we can actually move forward to make a difference.”

The Dearborn City Council unanimously passed a resolution in March requiring the city clerk to produce Arabic ballots against the concerns of some local officials who baulked over the viability and costs of the push. Opponents of the measure argued that the city already provides voter information and sample ballots in Arabic.

But Hammoud said working with the Michigan secretary of state, Wayne County and Dominion Voting Systems, which manufactures voting machines, the city went through the process “fairly quickly” and “got it done”.

“It’s important that our democracy continues to be accessible and secure for every Michigan voter,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in a statement in July.

“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.”

The initiative had faced objections rooted in xenophobia from some residents. But Hammoud said the measure is meant to lead to a “better Dearborn community” and benefit all residents by ensuring greater participation in elections.

Abdullah Hammoud
Abdullah Hammoud says providing Arabic ballots is ‘better for democracy’ [Al Jazeera/Ali Harb]

“From an outcomes perspective, if somebody who’s going to vote understands better in Arabic what they’re voting for [to] make more informed decisions, isn’t that better for our democracy?” Hammoud, who was elected as Dearborn’s first Arab-American mayor last year, said.

Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), which leads a nationwide campaign to increase Arab voter participation, echoed Hammoud’s comment.

“Voting is a requirement for successful democracy,” Berry told Al Jazeera. “No one is demanding that if you don’t need an Arabic language ballot you get one. All we’re doing here is making sure that for those who need it – because perhaps their Arabic is better than their English – it is available to them.”

She added that any time governments put an emphasis on inclusivity in voting, it generally leads to increased turnout.

Berry also said the Arabic ballots issue underscores the need for adding a Middle East and North Africa category to the US census.

Huthayfah Awnallah, a Yemeni-American college student, said he felt represented and was “excited” to vote using an Arabic ballot even though he’s fluent in English.

“I voted in Arabic to encourage this move,” he told Al Jazeera. “I just wish they also had the names of the candidates in Arabic next to the English.”

Hammoud had said the ultimate goal is to have one ballot with both languages on it, but it was difficult to do that in Tuesday’s election because of the length of the ballot, which featured multiple races.