One of the largest and rapidly growing Muslim and Arab American communities in the United States lives and works in Dearborn, Michigan.
“Arabs are almost half of the city,” said Osama Siblani about his adopted hometown, a Detroit suburb of about 110,000 people that, among other things, is home to the Arab American National Museum and the offices of Lebanese-born Sibani’s Arab American News. “We are the oldest, the largest Arab American publication in the country.”
Since Siblani started the weekly bilingual publication in the 1980s, each election brought unique challenges for his growing community, many of them recent immigrants – and new U.S. citizens – just learning English.
“I came here in 1976, and I find some difficulty in writing and reading some of these proposals and understanding them,” he told VOA.
Over the years, many turned to The Arab American News and other community organizations, like ACCESS, or Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, to understand who – and what – was on their English language ballots.
“Arabic is not a language that is covered by the Voting Rights Act,” explained University of Michigan political science professor Dale Thomson, adding that ballot access for those not considered one of the protected classes in the version of the landmark Voting Rights Act that Congress amended in 1975 falls to local officials. “It’s largely an optional thing clerks can do if they decide that it serves the voting population well in their particular community. There is no obligation to do this.”
For decades in Dearborn, despite an overwhelming need for access to Arabic-language ballots, there was no political will to do it either.
In Michigan’s August primary election, for the first time, voters in Dearborn could access official Arabic language ballots to cast their votes.
“The reason is the culture has changed,” Siblani said, due to changes in local elected leadership reflecting the changing ethnic and cultural makeup of the community.
“The actual number of people who speak Arabic at home has increased significantly over the past 10 to 15 years,” said Mustapha Hammoud, elected to Dearborn’s City Council in 2021.
He added that many things contributed.
“A confluence of political ability and kind of like the times being more accepting for voter access,” he said. “Having our first Arab American mayor. Having a council that is more friendly to those kinds of measures.
“The general conversation has shifted over time in America as far as the importance of voter accessibility and integrating people in our democracy,” he added.
Soon after being sworn in, Hammoud drafted legislation to provide official translated election materials for any language spoken by more than 5% of the city’s population, or 10,000 total people.
The measure passed unanimously earlier this year.
“There are states like California that have already implemented things like this,” Hammoud said. “For that step to be taken in Dearborn, it seemed like common sense to me.”
Voters in the midterm election can also now access Arabic-language ballots in Hamtramck, a Detroit suburb with a large Yemeni immigrant population.
“I hope to see at least that over time and in the near future that this will be expanded throughout the state of Michigan,” said Nadia Alamah, a voter outreach program coordinator for the nonprofit organization Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote Michigan.
Alamah’s parents immigrated from Lebanon and settled in Flint, Michigan, a place where she would like to see access to Arabic-language ballots.
“It’s good for us to have this everywhere because that way we have the opportunity for our community to feel at home in America everywhere,” she told VOA.
While the midterm election is not the first in Dearborn to use Arabic language ballots, it could provide the best indication yet of its impact, given the low voter turnout for Michigan’s August primary election.