Dearborn wants to provide translation of ballots for its Arabic-speaking population, but the Wayne County Clerk has concerns about this.
Last month, the Dearborn City Council passed a resolution requiring the city clerk to translate ballots into the languages spoken by at least 10,000 or 5% of the city’s residents. In Dearborn, that means both Arabic and English. The resolution also applies to voter registration forms and other election materials.
But in a letter to the Michigan Secretary of State, Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett asked if they had the authority to do so.
“I look forward to reviewing the legal authority provided to the City of Dearborn by your office and the approved steps that a city or township in this state, which is not bound by a federal mandate, takes regarding ballots and election materials translated into other languages,” Garrett wrote in a letter to the Michigan Secretary of State’s office.
“Protocols on this matter are very important not just for minority languages in Wayne County, but for the entire state.”
Garrett noted that the resolution “does not specify any language or dialect”. She then asked if a city in Michigan had the right to print ballots in languages without a federal or state requirement. Garrett added that she “fully supports expanding accessibility for citizens who do not speak or understand English well enough to participate in the electoral process,” but said she was concerned that ballots translated are considered “unofficial” and may not be counted.
In a response letter, the Secretary of State’s office kindly brushed off Garrett’s concerns.
“Rule 203 [of the Voting Rights Act] requires that ballots be translated into certain languages if 5% or 10,000 members of a jurisdiction’s population speak one of those languages,” the letter read. “However, the law does not prevent jurisdictions from translating ballots into other languages, and even if a lower percentage of the population speaks that language or if the language is not specifically covered by the law on voting rights.”
The letter goes on to say that Michigan election law “does not prohibit printing ballots in languages other than English,” adding, “If the City of Dearborn and Wayne County seek to expand access to vote among the more than 50% of Dearborn residents who speak Arabic, they have the power to do so under the same provisions of Michigan election law governing the general printing of ballots.
The Secretary of State’s letter also noted that Dearborn planned to pay the cost of the translation and suggested that the procedure Garrett’s office already has in place for providing Bengali ballot translations to Hamtramck “can probably be replicated for Dearborn”. He goes on to say that expanding language access is a priority for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and offered Garrett technical assistance on the issue if needed.