Arab Americans flex their muscles at the US midterms ballot box

Arabic voting ballots available in two Michigan cities as Arab Americans enjoy growing political power

A Michigan voter inserts her absentee voter ballot into a drop box in Troy, Michigan. AP
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The upcoming US midterm elections serve as a reminder of how far the Arab American demographic has come in gaining political power and influence.

In Dearborn, Michigan — the Detroit suburb long considered the heart of America's Arab American community — Michael Guido first campaigned for mayor in 1985 on a ticket of solving the city's “Arab problem”. He went on to lead Dearborn for two decades until his death in 2006.

Guido’s predecessor, Orville Hubbard, was mayor from 1942 to 1978 and a segregationist who made racist remarks towards Arab Americans and other minority groups.

“Some people, the Syrians, are even worse than [black people],” Hubbard once said, using a racial epithet.

Dearborn Heights City Council Chairman Dave Abdallah was a young immigrant from Lebanon at the time Guido was in office.

“We thought that was just the norm. We didn't know much about discrimination. We were immigrants. Even myself … I barely knew politics or much about discrimination then,” Mr Abdallah told The National.

Fast forward to today, and Detroit's metropolitan area tells a very different story.

Dearborn, which has America's largest Muslim population on a per-capita basis, elected its first Arab-American mayor, Abdullah Hammoud, last year.

Data from the 2020 US census show Arab Americans make up 47 per cent of the city’s roughly 110,000 residents. Arabic-speaking voters can cast Arabic-language ballots. And non-Arab American politicians are jostling for endorsements from the community.

“We are an important voting block and we will do all we can to ensure the election of candidates who listen to our concerns and afford us a seat at the table,” said Farah Hobballah, president of the Arab American Political Action Committee.

“We are no different from other constituencies and we should participate and vote in numbers to make sure our voices are heard.”

Michigan has the second-largest Arab American community after California, with an estimated 277,534 residing in the mid-western state.

Most of Michigan's Arab community is based in Wayne County, which comprises several cities including Dearborn and Hamtramck, home to a large Yemeni-American population.

In January, Hamtramck swore in its first Arab American mayor, Amer Ghalib, a Yemeni immigrant and Muslim American.

And the city of Dearborn Heights, which borders Dearborn, elected its first Arab American mayor, Bill Bazzi, in 2021.

“They were picked because they are Americans first and they were good candidates,” said Mr Abdallah, speaking about the Dearborn and Dearborn Heights mayors.

“And they are doing both a great job, not because they're Arab Americans. The standard is not lowered because they're Arab Americans. They really are doing a great job and have moved both cities forward.”

Having Arab Americans in office today has helped shape our community's political involvement and gave us confidence and pride
Arab American Political Action Committee President Farah Hobballah

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson credited local leaders across Wayne County, which traditionally votes Democrat, for ensuring Arabic-language ballots are available to those who might want them at the November 8 midterms. The move comes as some Republican states introduce laws that critics say make it harder for minorities to vote.

“It's important that our democracy continues to be accessible and secure for every Michigan voter,” Ms Benson told a local TV news channel.

“In a moment where there are so many efforts to divide and deter citizen engagement, it's inspiring to see Dearborn, Hamtramck and Wayne County leadership come together to show government can be responsive to citizens' needs and deliver results.”

In Dearborn, the Arabic-language ballots came from a resolution that passed unanimously in March and was introduced by council member Mustapha Hammoud.

“The issue is that there were always kind of non-official translations floating around during election time … The goal with this was to kind of level the playing field by providing a translation that's obviously unbiased and that the city themselves put together,” Mr Hammoud, who was elected last year, told The National.

“People will have access to the ballot in a way that's more secure and objective than they had previously, one-hundred per cent.”

What are the US midterm elections and why are they so important?

What are the US midterm elections and why are they so important?

Still, there was considerable pushback against the Arabic voting ballots that some view as racially motivated.

This is not the first time Arabic voting ballots have been printed in the country. According to Mr Hammoud, Arabic voting ballots have been used in some Los Angeles communities before.

Ms Hobballah, the AAPAC president, said the ballots should contribute to higher voter turnout in Dearborn during the midterm elections.

“These types of efforts will continue and along with keeping voters informed should contribute to higher turnout and involvement in our community,” she told The National.

Arab Americans in Michigan have more political power than ever

The midterm elections are an opportunity for Arab Americans to keep allies of the community in office.

Some candidates up for re-election who have maintained strong relationships with the Arab American community include Ms Benson, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American to serve in Congress, among several others.

All five Democrats earned endorsements from AAPAC for the midterm elections.

The Arab American vote carries a lot of weight in Michigan and is credited with helping Biden win the state during the 2020 presidential election.

Mr Abdallah, the Dearborn Heights council chair, is the first Arab American immigrant to serve on the city council and was elected eight years ago. At the time, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Susan Dabaja made history as the first Arab American president of the Dearborn City Council.

Mr Abdallah noted that high numbers of Arab Americans began running for office about eight years ago.

“I didn’t think it was going to be coming at this level and not quite this fast honestly. The last three, four or five years has been a very quick trajectory in a positive direction,” he said.

For Mustapha Hammoud, the experience of serving the community he grew up in can feel “surreal” at times.

“You think about it, but you don't truly believe it until you actually see it. It is surreal sometimes to be sitting in that room and knowing that you do have the authority to make changes, based on your own experiences, having grown up here,” he said.

The momentum continues amid the midterms with some first time Arab American candidates running for office in the greater Detroit area and others vying to keep their seats.

“We have come a long way in the last few years but we still have a lot of work today. What we see taking shape today is the result of many years of hard work,” Ms Hobballah said.

Updated: October 31, 2022, 1:34 PM