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The push to expand translated ballots

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Posted at 7:08 AM, Sep 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-13 10:08:46-04

Voting is a right that doesn’t always come easy for Americans who speak English as a second language.

While federal law requires ballots to be translated into many languages, there are several languages that are not included.

Dearborn, Michigan is the first city to offer ballots that are translated into Arabic.

“This is an all-American city football here is like football in Texas,” said Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud.

Mayor Hammoud's city, just outside Detroit, carries a uniquely important role to millions of Americans.

“The City of Dearborn has the largest concentration of Arab Americans outside of the Middle East, so for Arab Americans, it's the capital of Arab America," Hammoud said

Hammoud grew up in Dearborn where he says Arabic is the primary language for about 40% percent of the people.

During 2022's Michigan primary, Dearborn offered its voters a ballot that was in Arabic. Voters in nearby Hamtramck, which also has a large immigrant community, also had Arabic-translated ballots.

While U.S. citizens are expected to understand English, Hammoud says ballots are on a different level.

"For me, I grew up speaking Arabic in the household but when I ran for office, I never learned the political terms in Arabic in the household. I learned the basics: "What are you eating today?" "How’s the weather?" "What are you going to school for?" I never learned, "What is the environmental impact on this part of town?" Never learned that in Arabic," he said.

Arabic is one of the fastest growing languages in the country, but it’s not recognized in the Voting Rights Act, which includes a section meant to help those whose native language isn’t English.

"So, the legislation was written such that if ten thousand people or five percent of the population of political jurisdiction primarily speak a language other than English, right, they could be included," said Luis Ricardo Fraga, director of the Institute of Latino Studies at Notre Dame.

Fraga said only groups considered "language minorities" listed in the law qualify for federal translation help. Those groups are Spanish, Asian, Native American, and Native Alaskan.

Those who speak Arabic as their first language aren't the only ones who face this issue, Creole is the first language for many of the more than a million Haitian Americans in the country.

“There are words you say in Creole that resemble English," said Frantz Sonnen. "It's really unique.

Sonnen is a U.S. citizen who came to the United States in the 1980s from Haiti. Today he is a minister who helps St. Louis' Haitian community. He says Creole-translated ballots would send a message to his community.

"It would mean a lot. It would mean that they matter. It would mean that their voice can be heard," Sonnen said

Dearborn isn't the only place where there is a push to expand translated voting materials.

Shams Al-Badry is with the Arab American advocacy group ACCESS.

She says there is sometimes pushback to expanding language access in some parts of the country.

"A lot of the pushback is if you’re voting in America, you should be able to speak English," she said. "But it’s not something everyone in our country speaks fluently."

For November's midterm elections, Dearborn voters will have access to Arabic-translated ballots again.

"Why not make the democratic process a little easier and ensure that people who want to vote and be part of the election process in the language that they’re comfortable speaking?" Al-Badry said

Dearborn also passed an ordinance that says ballots will be translated into any language that more than five percent of the community speaks.

“If you’re able to allow a voter to walk in and make a more informed decision, I think it only betters the entirety of our democracy," Mayor Hammoud said.