Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) Vote Michigan holds a voter education town hall at Kabob House in Hamtramck on July 16, 2022. | Courtesy photo
In an effort to dismantle language barriers at Michigan’s polls and ensure citizens who speak languages other than English can vote, a coalition of nonprofit organizations and election officials this week launched an array of voting resources in Arabic, Bangla and Spanish.
MichiganVoting.org – a group that includes the ACLU of Michigan, the Anti-Defamation League, APIA Vote Michigan, the Detroit branch of the NAACP, Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, the Oakland County Clerk’s Office, and the League of Women Voters of Michigan, among others – announced Monday that it now offers a voter’s rights guide, voter registration forms, and absentee ballot applications in the languages spoken by hundreds of thousands of Michiganders.
“This is truly an unprecedented effort to make voting more accessible and ensure that voters have the resources they need to successfully cast their ballots,” Cindy Gamboa, the director of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, said in a prepared statement.
The group’s launch was held in tandem with the national nonpartisan group Election Protection announcing it will provide a Michigan call center to answer Michiganders’ voting-related questions and to respond to incidents of voter suppression. Residents can call 866-OUR-VOTE with questions regarding voting, and affiliated hotlines now offer support in Spanish (888-VE-Y-VOTA), Arabic (844-YALLA-US), and Vietnamese (888-API-VOTE). Hotlines are also available in Bangla, Cantonese, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, Tagalog, and Urdu.
“The in-language resources on MichiganVoting.org and the in-language hotlines provide invaluable, in-language support not just for Arabic voters, but for so many others whose first language isn’t English,” Rima Meroueh, director for the National Network for Arab American Communities said in a prepared statement. “Language shouldn’t be a barrier to voting, and we’re excited to be a part of this multi-group effort to build a voting system that works for everyone.”
Civil rights advocates have long documented a litany of issues with immigrants and non-English speakers being discouraged from voting in Michigan, including ballots not being offered in languages other than English and translators not being available.
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), for example, sued the city of Hamtramck in June 2021 for not providing Bengali language assistance to voters when the federal Voting Rights Act requires the city to do so. Following the lawsuit, Hamtramck agreed to provide ballots in Bangla, the official language of Bangladesh and a language spoken throughout South Asia and among the South Asian diaspora.
Rebeka Islam, the executive director of Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) Vote Michigan, a nonprofit that works to empower the Asian American community, said that language access “has always been a barrier” when it comes to voting and “not enough has been done for it.”
Few municipalities in Michigan offer non-English ballots, though community leaders and lawmakers have been pushing for that to change. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, for example, said on July 1 that Hamtramck will provide ballots in Arabic for the Aug. 2 primary, and in May the Dearborn City Council approved a resolution stipulating that the city will provide absentee and regular ballots in Arabic.
Islam said it’s especially important that non-English voters can access resources this election because people are voting in Michigan’s new, redistricted maps.
“Anything that’s provided in English should be provided in other languages,” Islam said. “No voter should have to make a decision without understanding what’s on the ballot.”
The push to engage marginalized voters comes at a time when Republicans in Michigan and across the country have introduced a flurry of voter restrictions bills following former President Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has vetoed a number of such bills that the governor said would have negatively impacted communities of color.
Michigan Republicans also launched the Secure MI Vote ballot initiative last year, which would have required an ID for in-person and absentee ballot applications, prohibited unsolicited absentee ballot applications, required partial Social Security numbers for voter registration, and required voters who did not present their ID in person to present it within six days after the election for their vote to be counted, among other restrictions.
While the initiative failed to meet its June 1 signature deadline to get on the Nov. 8 ballot, organizers are still gathering signatures and the GOP-led state Legislature has the power to adopt the measure. If that occurs, Whitmer, a Democrat, could not veto it.
“Our democratic processes are under a severe threat,” Islam said. “…I think it’s really important we continue the fight to make sure voting is accessible.”
Voting restrictions would further disenfranchise voters of color, Islam said.
“It’s already hard to access ballots; now imagine taking away absentee ballots or same-day registration,” Islam said. “It adds another layer of challenges.”
Islam noted that the Promote the Vote ballot measure will be on the ballot this November; the initiative seeks to implement reforms organizers say will increase voting access for Michiganders, expand early voting, minimize political interference from state parties, and more.
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