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Dearborn needs Arabic-language election materials, Arab-American advocates say

Courtesy of Nada El-Hatooni

Updated at 1:00 p.m. on July 29, 2021

The City of Dearborn will offer sample ballots in Arabic at all polling sites for the primary election next week, following appeals from local and national advocacy organizations.

“We pushed hard,” said Nada Al-Hanooti of Emgage Michigan, a Muslim-American advocacy organization who said she met with Dearborn City Clerk last week to discuss the need for Arabic-language election materials in the city where nearly half of residents are of Arab origin.

“It's up to us to put pressure and advocate for [translated ballots], because what we care about is making sure that voting is that there's fair and equal access to all Dearborn constituents, whether they speak English, whether they don't.”

Dearborn City Clerk George Darany told the Detroit Free Press that Arabic-language ballots were also available in the 2020 presidential election. (The Free Press first reported on this issue earlier this month.)

"They were available on the city website and at all the polls on Election Day," Darany said. "The only negative was that the State of Michigan produced them and promised the sample ballots would be available in early October. We didn’t receive them until 3 days before the Election."

Darany went on to say he had been hoping to offer Arabic language sample ballots with more lead time to this year’s primary election.

"We received the sample last week and posted on the website on Wednesday, which is a lot faster than last November, but not as quickly as I had hoped,” he said. “We will try to have them available in early October for the November election."

Original post, July 21, 2021 at 4:00 p.m.

Last Election Day, Nada El-Hanooti was at a polling site in Dearborn Heights when she noticed a Lebanese woman sitting on a ledge who reminded her of her grandmother. 

"’I never leave my house,’” she recalled the woman telling her. “‘I am vulnerable to COVID. I just left [home] just to vote.’” 

The woman had been preparing to leave, El-Hanooti said, when she sat down next to her and helped her fill out the form, which was only available in English. She said the woman wouldn’t have been able to cast a ballot without her.

The incident occurred in Dearborn Heights, but El-Hanooti, who is the Executive Director of Emgage Michigan, a Muslim and Arab American advocacy organization, said that some of her colleagues witnessed voters struggle with English-language-only registration forms in the City of Dearborn. 

“This is a form of voter suppression,” she said, noting that about half of the Dearborn population is Arab American and many are Arabic-language-only speakers. 

Abed Ayoub is with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He said Dearborn City Clerk George Darany has not met demands to translate election material. 

"All we're asking is, is do your job, translate the material. Now, it took members, community members emailing him. It took our organization getting involved to get a simple translation of the absentee ballot posted,” said Ayoub. 

“I'm not saying he's racist, but what I'm saying is your policies are having a [disparate] impact on Arab Americans and he needs to understand that. So we need to know what his intention is, why he's not moving on these requests.”

Darany told Ayoub in an email shared with Michigan Radio that he felt "the need for Arabic election information is not widespread." 

“My office has only recently been contacted by a few residents requesting that election materials be written in Arabic,” he wrote. “I am very surprised that residents would contact your office in D.C. before calling their 

Clerk’s Office in Dearborn. In my mind, this means that the need for Arabic election information is not widespread. If so, we certainly would have heard more about it with only three weeks left before the primary.” 

He said that his office is working on developing sample ballots in Arabic to be posted on the City of Dearborn's website and offered at polls on Election Day. Arabic-language poll workers are being assigned to voting locations as needed. Darany also said that Arabic-speaking poll workers will be assigned to voting sites as needed. 

The City of Dearborn recently addedan Arabic-language absentee voter registration form. The city clerk did not respond to a request for comment from Michigan Radio. He is seeking re-election in an uncontested race. 

Seven candidates are in the running for the mayoral primary in August, including a few who are vying to be the city's first mayor of Arab descent. 

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Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.