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In the leadup to this year’s general election, Michigan’s Secretary of State office rolled out its language access program, which provides voting information and sample ballots in nine different languages. The program went above and beyond the requirements of federal law.
Bilal Hammoud, public engagement associate with the SOS office and creator of the language access program, told Detour that it sends a clear message to Michigan voters: “These elected officials work for you, they bring power to your voice, these are resources that you should expect. And you shouldn’t have to speak English to be included in the system.”
The language access task force has big goals: namely, to expand voting access to include everyone, regardless of their native language. It’s a mission shared by community organizers and advocacy groups throughout the state. Anecdotally, the initiative has succeeded: combined efforts of state programs and local activists have led to an increase in bilingual poll worker registration, voter information that’s available in a wider variety of languages and enhanced get-out-the-vote efforts. Still, voting poses unique challenges for bilingual and non-English speakers that persisted at the polls this year.
Translated voting information is critical to fighting voter suppression and misinformation, local journalist Serena Daniels told Detour. Daniels, who is a fellow at the misinformation-fighting nonprofit First Draft, noted that Black Americans have historically been the targets of voter suppression campaigns, and immigrant communities are also vulnerable. “When you don’t have ballots available in other languages, or even just voter registration or voter guides in other languages, this harms communities of color,” she said.
Nearly 10% of adults in Detroit speak a language other than English at home, according to 2014 figures compiled by New American Economy. The language access program provides materials in Arabic, Bangla, Burmese, English, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, Spanish, Tagalog and Urdu, and Hammoud said that the new, community-sourced translations are ones that voters can trust, in contrast to some translated voter materials of questionable accuracy released by the state in the past.
In Hamtramck, census data indicates that 67% of the population speaks a language other than English at home. The federal Voting Rights Act requires the city (home to the nation’s third-largest population of Bangladeshi Americans) to translate voting materials and ballots into Bengali. There are no requirements for translation into Arabic, which is also a commonly spoken language in the city. Bengali ballots are rarely requested: City Clerk August Gitschlag told Outlier Media that only two have been requested at polling places in the past seven years, and none absentee. Hamtramck City Councilmember Nayeem Choudhury told the Yemeni American News that voters may prefer in-person interpretation over translated ballots because the translated ballots can still be difficult to understand in conversational Bengali.
Confusing translations is one of the past pitfalls the state task force hopes to combat, said Hammoud, with community-based partners who “double and triple and quadruple check everything that we produce and make sure it’s getting in the hands of the people who benefit from it.”
Still, the program cannot issue actual ballots, and only provides translations of materials like voter information and sample ballots. In Hamtramck, this included sample ballots in Bengali, Arabic and Spanish. Federal law mandates that translated ballots be made available in areas where at least 5% of voting-age citizens in a given “political subdivision” (a county, township or municipality) primarily speak a language other than English.
For those who prefer interpretation to translation, murky election law means problems can still arise at the voting booth. On Election Day, the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Michigan Chapter (CAIR-MI) reported that a Hamtramck poll challenger was asked to leave a polling place after trying to provide Arabic interpretation for a voter. After a back-and-forth between the challenger and Hamtramck’s clerk, poll workers allowed the challenger to stay and continue translating.
Tammy Patrick, senior advisor to the Elections program at the Democracy Fund, told Detour that generally under federal law, “voters can ask anyone to assist them … with just a couple exceptions (candidate, employer, union steward),” and Amy Doukoure, staff attorney at CAIR-MI, said that the Secretary of State guidance that she is familiar with advises that poll challengers may not approach voters but can assist them if directly requested. But the Secretary of State documentation states that “challengers are not authorized to approach voters or talk directly to voters for any reason,” and a spokesperson for the Secretary of State confirmed to Detour that poll challengers may not provide translation for voters, even if requested.
It’s not just grey areas like this where access issues arise. Doukoure said that language barriers have long posed issues for Hamtramck voters.
“We have historically had to go down to poll watch in multiple elections because of issues similar to this,” Doukoure said on Nov. 3. “Today I watched a poll worker tell someone that they were not allowed to go and translate for their parent. I was called to a different polling place around 11:30 this morning because they had told a translation volunteer that they had to be 100 feet away from the polling place.”
On Election Day, ballots were available in Bengali (as mandated by federal law) at Hamtramck High School, one of Hamtramck’s seven polling places. Arabic and Bengali speakers were also available to interpret for voters.
In Southwest Detroit, where 36% of the population is Hispanic or Latino, organizations like Global Detroit, the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation and Michigan United recruited bilingual poll workers to help voters in English and Spanish. Steve Tobocman, executive director of Global Detroit, said that the organizations were well-prepared to “handle the influx of bilingual voters who might need additional language support.” In neighborhoods like this, with so many community partners already doing work on the ground, Hammoud said that the Secretary of State’s task force can serve as a stamp of approval. “These groups already have those relationships. All they need is the resources and a governmental body to just approve [resources] and say yes, these are okay to use. Spread them like wildfire.”
The area does not meet the threshold that would require the state to provide translated ballots under the Voting Rights Act. Still, the state task force identified Southwest as an area with enough voting-age citizens who primarily speak Spanish that they created translated sample ballots and distributed them to polling places for voters to consult. They also put up QR codes that voters could scan for language-specific voting help hotlines and a virtual version of the translated ballot.
Hammoud describes the work of the language task force and its partners as “an opportunity to bring power to the voices of all of Michigan.” A lot of the work, he said, is in “going beyond accessibility ideology” and “pushing it into the framework of, ‘Hey: the community and the state work for you.’”
Outlier Media reporter Malak Silmi contributed reporting to this story, which was produced with the help of tips reported through ProPublica’s Electionland project.