Although the typo affected only 34 Dearborn voters who had requested Arabic absentee ballots before he was caught, the incident underscores the struggles in jurisdictions with large groups of eligible voters with limited English proficiency in amid an ongoing national campaign for greater access to the language on ballots and in other election materials. Legal experts say election administrators should address the need for non-English voting materials, a nonpartisan issue aimed at increasing voter turnout in the United States.
First offered during the midterm elections, Dearborn’s Arabic-language ballots had an error in the “Supreme Court Justice” section, which instructed voters to select “not more than one” when it should have said “none more than two. “
This year, Michigan had two open Supreme Court seats and five candidates on the ballot, meaning that people who did not change their submitted Arabic-language ballot may not have cast their ballot for multiple candidates when they could have voted .
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The use of Arabic ballots for the first time in Dearborn stemmed from a resolution introduced by city councilor Mustapha Hammoud that required access to election materials in any language spoken at home by a minimum of 10,000 residents or 5 percent of the population, based on census data, whichever threshold is reached first.
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 and others are not covered by federal law. The Voting Rights Act protects minority language groups, but limits them to “people who are American Indian, Asian American, Alaskan Native or of Hispanic descent.”
This often puts pressure on state and local leaders to expand election materials for their constituents who speak languages outside of federal law, said Michelle Kanter Cohen, policy director and senior counsel at the Fair Elections Center. a non-partisan voting rights organization.
“There is nothing preventing election officials, as a matter of policy, from offering materials and information in additional languages,” Kanter Cohen said.
In September, Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) introduced a bill that would allow election materials to be published in those additional languages and fund state and local officials in the effort.
The Dearborn City Council approved the voting rights resolution in March, the same month it was introduced, meaning Arabic ballots would be used during primaries in August and midterms in November. The decision was approved after “intense debate” about the costs and lack of time to implement it, the Detroit Free Press reported.
It’s unclear exactly how the mistake was made, but City Council President Mike Sareini said the schedule for the Arabic ballots was tight. Moving 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.”
“There was an oversight,” said Sareini. “And we’re going to work hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
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Like Dearborn, other communities across the country have worked for years to introduce new language ballots despite the obstacles.
This year, for the first time, San Diego County voters had access to Persian and Somali facsimile ballots, translated sample ballots to use as a reference when filling out English ballots. The move came after California Secretary of State Shirley Weber reinstated minority language resolutions that had expired in 2021.
Jeanine Erikat, policy leader of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, said her fears are particularly focused on various border counties such as San Diego County.
“Our community is so excited to have facsimiles, or reference ballots, in their own language and to be able to learn about elections and measures,” Erikat said. “I know California is really setting a precedent for other states on this, and it’s something I’d love to see across the nation.”
Erikat said she also hopes to see official ballots, not just facsimiles, in more languages in future elections.
In 2018, nonpartisan civic groups in Florida filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to order state and local officials to provide Spanish-language ballots. The suit alleged that Florida’s secretary of state and other officials were violating the voting rights of thousands of Puerto Ricans who had moved there after Hurricane Maria.
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In September 2018, the judge ruled in favor of the groups, ordering 32 counties to provide Spanish-language sample ballots, but stopped short of requesting official ballots due to the lack of time before the midterm elections.
“We really need constant advocacy and vigilance and community engagement, even when we’re making gains,” said Miranda Galindo, senior counsel for PRLDEF’s LatinoJustice, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit.
“This is a nonpartisan issue,” Galindo said. “This is something about having fair access, that voting and democracy are not conditional on being fluent in English.”
For decades, Osama Siblani, who lives near Dearborn and is the publisher of the Arab American News, has published election information in Arabic. He was one of three volunteers commissioned to help with the city’s Arabic language votes.
Despite this year’s disaster, Siblani said he is waiting to see if the translated ballots and election materials will have a significant impact on the community’s turnout.
“I have been publishing the Arab American News for 38 years and I know that my community was not participating [in elections] because of the lack of sufficient knowledge of English to make an important choice,” he said.
Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.