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It’s وقت التصويت (“Voting Time”): Dearborn Election Materials Translated into Arabic for the First Time

posted on: Aug 3, 2022

Dearborn, Michigan, known colloquially as the Arab American capital of the world. (Photo: Dearborn City Council)

By: Riley Bryant / Arab America Contributing Writer

At the core of democracy is participation, and at the core of participation is accessibility. Along these lines, the US government has taken plenty of measures to make elections widely accessible to a large and diverse American population. From public advertisements, to expanded voting windows, it is in democracy’s best interest that the ballot is flexible to as many eligible citizens as possible. In Dearborn, Michigan, the newest step in this endeavor comes in the linguistic category: adding Arabic to the long list of available languages in which to receive election materials.

Tailoring to Your Audience

A sample Dearborn ballot, translated into Arabic. (Photo: Dearborn City Council)

Dearborn, Michigan, is a suburb of Detroit and has the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the country. According to 2020 census data, about 46% of Dearborn residents speak Arabic at home, and of that population, nearly 41% do not speak English fluently. That means that language accessibility is a major roadblock for nearly a quarter of Dearborn’s voting population.

This initiative was first introduced in March of 2022 in a resolution proposed by Dearborn City Councilman Mustapha Hammoud. In the resolution, which did not specifically mention Arabic, any language that was spoken by more than 5% of the Dearborn population would be included on election materials, including ballots, polling locations, and informational brochures. 

Left Out of the Narrative

Yalla Vote, an organization designed to get local Arab populations to the polls. (Photo: Yalla Vote)

This is not the first time election materials have been expanded to include foreign languages. Specifically, in 1975, Congress expanded the jurisprudence of the Voting Rights Act by including Section 203, a provision that protected the interest of groups that are often left out or discriminated against during the electoral process. Groups such as indigenous populations, Spanish-heritage ethnic groups, and Asian-Americans were explicitly granted protections. Additionally, like Dearborn’s initiative, areas in which 5% or more of the population speak a “language minority” are required to provide election materials in that language.

While this may sound like the same concept as the Dearborn initiative, there are key technicalities that have left languages, like Arabic, out of these protections. It is important to understand exactly what a “language minority” is: a language that is not the majority language of any nation, or is the primary language of an ethnic minority. For example, indigenous languages fall under this category as a non-majority language of the Americas, and Spanish as it is the primary language of an ethnic minority. However, Arabic is not considered the latter because Arab populations are classified as “white” under the current federal standards. For this reason, Arab populations are not considered an “ethnic minority.”

This is by far not the first problem that the census’ designation has caused for the Arab American community. Arab America contributing writer Jordan AbuAljazer wrote on this issue just a few weeks ago. Yet, in the face of adversity, the Dearborn community has taken the solution to election accessibility one step further for their constituents.

Enhancing Democracy, One ورقة الاقتراع (“Ballot”)  at a Time

Dearborn’s resolution goes one step further than Section 203, by removing the “language minority” requirement and only requiring that a language be spoken by at least 5% of the population. At 46% of the population, Arabic in Dearborn clearly annihilates that hurdle. Although it does not explicitly mention the Arabic language, Arabic is the only language that was affected by the change. The resolution went into effect starting with the primary vote yesterday, August 3, 2022.

While it does not solve every problem nationwide, the Dearborn initiative is the beginning of a long journey of recognition for the Arab American community. Thanks to the hard work of advocates in Michigan, nearly 25% of Dearborn voters now have access to the basic foundation of our democracy. With enough advocacy, this will be the first step towards wide-spread acknowledgement of the distinct culture that Arab Americans contribute to the US population.

Check out Arab America’s blog here!