‘Better for Democracy’: Two US Cities Offer Arab Ballots

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

The ballots were available Tuesday in the cities of Dearborn and Hamtramck in southeastern Michigan, just outside Detroit — home to a large Arab population — in the state’s primaries.

“The question is, why not? In a community where you know that about 50 percent of households speak a second language, mainly Arabic, why not make those who want to participate in our democracy more accessible? And that was really the premise behind the whole thing,” Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud, who helped lead the push for Arab ballots, told Al Jazeera.

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

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

Congress amended the U.S. Voting Rights Act in 1975 to require government agencies that conduct elections in areas with significant numbers of residents who speak English as a second language to issue “minority ballots.” So non-English ballots have been available in US elections for decades.

But the law did not include Arab Americans among historically disenfranchised community groups it sought to protect. The communities specified in the legislation are “American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskans, and citizens of Hispanic heritage”.

The fact that Arabs are counted as white in the US census made it harder for lawyers to lobby for Arab 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’s on paper,” Hammoud said.

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

Dearborn City Council unanimously passed a resolution in March requiring the city clerk to produce Arab ballots against the concerns of some local officials who were hesitant about the viability and cost of the push. Opponents of the measure argued that the city is already providing voter information and sample ballots in Arabic.

But Hammoud said that by working with the Secretary of State for Michigan, Wayne County and Dominion Voting Systems, which manufactures voting machines, the city went through the process “quite quickly” and “made it happen.”

“It is important that our democracy remains accessible and safe to every voter in Michigan,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in a statement in July.

“At a time when so many efforts are being made to divide and deter citizen involvement, it is inspiring to see the leaders of Dearborn, Hamtramck and Wayne County come together to show that government can respond to citizens’ needs and deliver results.”

The initiative had faced objections rooted in xenophobia from some residents. But Hammoud said the move aims to create a “better Dearborn community” and benefit all residents by increasing election participation.

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

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

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

“Voting is a requirement for a successful democracy,” Berry told Al Jazeera. “Nobody is demanding that if you don’t need a ballot paper in the Arabic language, you get one. All we’re doing here is making sure it’s available to them for those who need it – because maybe their Arabic is better than their English.”

She added that every time governments emphasize inclusive voting, it generally leads to higher turnout.

Berry also said the Arab ballot issue underscores the need to add a Middle East and North African category to the US census.

Huthayfah Awnallah, a Yemeni-American student, said he felt represented and was “enthusiastic” to vote with an Arabic ballot, even though he is fluent in English.

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

Hammoud had said the ultimate goal is to have a single ballot paper with both languages ​​on it, but it was difficult to do that in Tuesday’s election due to the length of the ballot, with multiple races.



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