PBS: Why Arabic ballots are now being offered in Michigan and what this means for voter access in the U.S.

Image for PBS: Why Arabic ballots are now being offered in Michigan and what this means for voter access in the U.S.
Dearborn City Hall and official ballot drop box, Dearborn, Michigan, Sept. 18, 2021. Credit: Frances Kai-Hwa Wang/PBS

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang/PBS NewsHour

Three days before the inauguration of President Trump, Nada Al-Hanooti’s mother, who was born in a Syrian refugee camp and speaks very little English, was able to take and pass the U.S. citizenship test. Although she was able to naturalize in Arabic, when it came time for her to vote for the first time, she needed to bring her daughter with her to translate her ballot.

That reality changed this past August, when the cities of Dearborn and Hamtramck in Michigan, began providing ballots in Arabic for the first time in the state’s history.

“Yes, we can have translators at the polls, but for me, I want my community to vote with dignity,” Al-Hanooti, executive director of Emgage’s Michigan chapter, an organization that educates and mobilizes Muslim American voters, told the NewsHour. While not all Arab Americans are Muslim and not all Muslims are Arab American, groups like Emgage and others reach the Arab American community through their Arabic language outreach. “Imagine having someone like my mom — who was born in a refugee camp in Syria, and came here, and got her citizenship three days before Trump’s inauguration — [who] walks in there, taking up space and voting by herself. In her language. That is so powerful and beautiful.”

or Hamtramck, Bengali language ballots have been required by the Voting Rights Act for some time because of its large Bangladeshi American community, although it took years of poll watching and a lawsuit from Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) to enforce it. This year, Hamtramck’s city council voted to mandate Arabic ballots, as well as to translate all election materials and instructions into Arabic, even though Arabic is not a language included in the Voting Rights Act.

“This is a big step toward improving community engagement in the election process,” Hamtramck Mayor Amer Ghalib said in a statement. “It makes it easy for people to understand the ballots and make the right choices and will decrease the number of voided ballots. This is a historic moment for the Arab community, especially in Hamtramck and Dearborn, and we look forward to seeing the positive impact it brings to our community.”