Although the typo only affected 34 Dearborn voters who requested Arabic ballots before they were caught, the incident highlights the challenges faced by districts and large groups of eligible voters who are not fluent in English as the nation pushes for multilingual voting and other election materials. Legal experts say election officials need to address the need for voting materials that are not in English, an issue that is inconsistent with the goal of increasing voter turnout in the United States.
Given for the first time in the mid-term elections, Dearborn’s Arabic-language ballot contained errors in the “Justice of the Supreme Court” section, which instructed voters to choose “no more than one” when they said “no more than two.”
This year, Michigan had two open Supreme Court seats with five candidates on the ballot, meaning that people who did not change their Arabic-language ballot may not have voted for several candidates when they could have.
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The use of Arabic ballots for the first time in Dearborn was the result of a decision by city councilman Mustapha Hammoud to require election materials in any language spoken at home by at least 10,000 people, or 5 percent of the population. for census data.
The city has the largest Arab American population in the United States – and Arabic is the only language that met the criteria to vote as a language in this year’s general elections.
Languages including Arabic, Farsi, Haitian-Creole and others are not covered by government regulations. The Voting Rights Act protects minority language groups, but restricts them to “persons of American Indian, Asian American, Alaskan Natives or Spanish heritage.”
That often puts the onus on state and local leaders to expand voting tools for their constituents who speak languages that are not covered by state law, said Michelle Kanter Cohen, policy director and general counsel at the Fair Elections Center, a voting rights organization.
“There is nothing to prevent election officials, as a matter of course, from providing materials and information in other languages,” said Kanter Cohen.
In September, Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) introduced a bill that would allow the publication of election materials in those additional languages and provide funding to state and local officials.
The Dearborn City Council approved a voting rights resolution in March, the same month it was enacted, meaning Arabic-language ballots will be used in the August and mid-November primaries. The decision was approved after “significant debate” over cost and lack of time to implement it, the Detroit Free Press reported.
It’s unclear how the error occurred, but City Council President Mike Sareini said the timing of the Arabic-language vote 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 flawless as possible.”
“There was surveillance,” Sareini said. “And we’re going to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
From Dearborn, Michigan: The Arab Capital of North America
Like Dearborn, communities across the country have worked for years to establish new language ballots despite obstacles.
This year, voters in San Diego County for the first time had the opportunity to cast Persian and Somali facsimile ballots, which are translated into sample ballots to use as transcripts. The move came after California Secretary of State Shirley Weber reinstated a few languages that were set to expire in 2021.
Jeanine Erikat, policy director at the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, said her fears were particularly prevalent in diverse areas such as San Diego County.
“Our community is happy to have facsimile ballots, or testimonials, in their languages and to be able to learn about the elections and the process,” Erikat said. “I know California is setting an example for other states in this regard, and that’s something I’d love to see across the state.”
Erikat said he also hopes to see government polls, not faxes, in more languages in future elections.
In 2018, non-governmental groups in Florida filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to order state and local officials to provide Hispanic ballots. The court said the Florida secretary of state and other officials are violating the voting rights of thousands of Puerto Ricans who moved there after Hurricane Maria.
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In September 2018, the judge ruled in favor of the groups, ordering 32 counties to vote in Spanish, but waived the requirement to cast ballots due to lack of time before the midterm elections.
“It takes constant effort and vigilance and community action, even if we win,” said Miranda Galindo, general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit.
“This is a non-compliance problem,” Galindo said. “That’s something about having a good access, that voting and democracy doesn’t depend on someone being able to speak English.”
For years, Osama Siblani, who lives near Dearborn and is the publisher of the Arab American News, has published information about the election in Arabic. He was one of three volunteers who were given the task of helping to cast Arabic language ballots in the city.
Despite the difficulties this year, Siblani said he is waiting to see if the translated ballots and election tools will have a tangible impact on the community’s vote.
“I have been publishing Arab American News for 38 years and I know that my community has not been involved [in elections] because he does not know English well enough to be able to choose important things,” he said.
Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this article.