In 2008, we witnessed and took part in American democracy at its best – participation in a historic election like never seen before, from the active involvement of young people and turnout of new voters to real, ground-breaking conversations in neighborhoods about tough and sometimes taboo issues. In Michigan, 43% of Asian & Arab American voters surveyed were first time voters!1
We can continue this spirit of democracy and civic participation by ensuring that every citizen, regardless of ethnic background or language ability, is able to fully participate in the elections that shape our country and our local communities. It is in this vein that we should strive to improve language access at the polls, through partnerships between community organizations, local clerks, and state officials.
On November 4, 2008, one Bangladeshi American voter stated that he had observed a number of voters at his polling location in Detroit having difficulty with reading the ballot and needing further clarification. However, there were no interpreters or translated materials for them. AALDEF found that seventy voters that were surveyed in Southeast Michigan needed the assistance of an interpreter, but none were available in their language.
On the last day of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, it is important to recognize that in Michigan, Asian Americans are the fastest growing population.2 On May 18, Glenn Magpantay, voting rights attorney of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), presented the results of the 2008 Michigan Asian & Arab American exit poll, at a community gathering in Canton Township.
Of Asian and Arab American voters in Michigan surveyed on November 4, 2008, 21% in Dearborn were Limited English Proficient (LEP), 43% in Detroit were LEP, 35% in Hamtramck were LEP, and 10% in Troy were LEP. In addition, Census data shows significantly high rates of Limited English Proficiency in the Asian American communities in Kent and Macomb Counties.
Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote – Michigan, in partnership with the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), AALDEF, the Bangladeshi American Public Affairs Committee (BAPAC), and others, is encouraged by the possibility of working jointly with local clerks in Michigan to address this growing need.
We can begin with steps such as translating education materials at the local level, explaining how to register to vote, how to apply for an absentee voter ballot, and voter’s rights and responsibilities at the polls. For example, many voters do not realize they can bring an individual of their choice to assist them in the voting process, so long as that individual is not their union representative or employer. Encouraging bilingual individuals to apply to serve as election inspectors (and actively recruiting via ethnic language media) at polling locations with high LEP populations could be another important step. Lastly, what about providing the Michigan voter registration form online in languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Bengali, Korean, Punjabi, and Spanish?
Why translate? Voters could more accurately cast ballots. Greater trust can be built between communities of color and government officials. And most importantly, some people would have a renewed interest in civic participation, allowing elections, and thus, policy decisions, to better reflect the will of all Americans (or Michiganders).
The ideas and possibilities are endless – it is up to us to connect the dots and make them a reality. Together, Michigan’s clerks, community organizations, and voters can be at the forefront of change.
1 Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund, exit poll of 1621 voters, November 4, 2008. Conducted at twelve polling locations in Southeast Michigan in Ann Arbor, Canton, Dearborn, Detroit, Hamtramck, Novi and Troy.
2 According to U.S. Census bureau figures, the number of Asian Americans in Michigan increased by 1.9% from 2006 to 2007. Detroit Free Press, “Asian Americans top rising population,” May 1, 2008.