Why Are Michigan Officials Suppressing Arab-American Voters?

By Spencer Woodman

People having a good time at the 2010 Arab International Festival in Dearborn, MI. Photo via Flickr user Omar Chatriwala

For two weeks, Arab-Americans in Dearborn Heights, Michigan have issued increasingly loud complaints alleging that the city has systematically denied their access to absentee voting ahead of today’s primary election. But on Friday afternoon, local civil rights leaders were dismayed when Michigan’s Republican Secretary of State’s office responded to their worries with a letter announcing that the state did not see any wrongdoing in local election procedure, and that they were instead opening a criminal investigation into would-be voters themselves.

“All procedures are properly being followed”, the state’s letter asserted of the Dearborn city clerk, who has been accused of obstructing the voting of Arab-Americans. The letter quickly turns the blame—and the weight of a criminal investigation—onto the voters. “It appears clear that hundreds of AV [absentee voter] ballot requests have been illegally handled, solicited from voters, and submitted to the clerk’s office by a small number of individuals,” says the August 1 letter. The investigation, it adds, “may result in criminal charges against those involved.”

Coming just days before Tuesday’s primary election in the ethnically diverse Detroit suburb, the state’s announcement has heightened calls for federal oversight of the vote. Walt Prusiewicz, the embattled city clerk who initiated the Secretary of State’s investigation, told local press that the majority of questionable ballot applications submitted to his office appear to belong to people of Arab descent.

Civil rights activists and voting advocates fear that stirring the specter of a criminal investigation could not only distract from their original grievances of ballot denial but also discourage the city’s robust Arab-American community from turning out to vote. “Raising those kind of terms, like ‘criminal charges,’and ‘criminal convictions,’ can be really suppressive,” says Sharon Dolente, Director of the Michigan Election Coalition. “I can’t say what the state’s aim is here, but if you’re a community that’s been at risk of punitive reactions in interaction with government, you’re not going to want to keep interacting with them.”

Arab-Americans in Dearborn Heights have legitimate reason to worry. After last year’s primary in the neighboring city of Hamtramck, the Bangladeshi community came to the defense of three men ensnared by state officials in a voter fraud prosecution over allegations that they criminally handled absentee ballots (a forth man was charged several months later). In recent decades, Hamtramck’s Bangladeshi and Arab-American communities have grown larger and more influential, attracting the attention of the Republican establishment. The men in Hamtramck were charged with various felony counts not for actually defrauding voters, but for bringing absentee ballots to the elections office on voters’ behalf without being properly authorized to do so. By Michigan election law, this is technically illegal. Community leaders launched protests, calling on the government to end voter harassment and accusing the state of enforcing the voting rules against a community that has received inadequate education about Michigan's complex voting laws.

In 2000, Hamtramck faced a successful lawsuit by the US Justice Department accusing the city of systematically suppressing Arab-American voters. In that case, the city’s election officials singled out Arab-Americans, challenged their legal status , and required them to take oaths of citizenship as a condition of voting. No white voters were required to take the oath, the Justice Department found.

Michigan's Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who announced the criminal charges against the Hamtramck men, still heads  the agency that is investigating the Dearborn Heights’ election. Unlike in Hamtramck, this new voting inquiry does not involve actual ballots; the alleged misconduct in question is subtler in that it centers on the applications people must send in to receive a ballot. The state’s criminal investigation seeks to uncover whether these ballot applications were handled or solicited by anyone who was not authorized to do so.

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson has been going after minority voters since she was sworn in. Photo via Flickr user Joe Ross

VICE recently investigated a prosecution in which the state of Georgia is seeking convictions over similar forms of improper ballot handling. In 2010, after the small town of Quitman’s black community won its first-ever majority on the local school board, the state launched a massive probe into the election. The investigation did not produce evidence of actual fraud, so Georgia officials built their case instead on proving that 12 African American get-out-the-vote activists broke the rules by carrying ballots to the mail for voters and assisting them without the proper authorization. VICE tracked down several Quitman residents whom the state alleges are the victims of voter fraud, and each rejected the state’s claim, asserting that they voted successfully for the candidate(s) of their choice.

Four years after the Quitman election, the group still faces numerous felony charges. It is widely believed among Quitman residents that these charges have been employed to suppress the surging electoral participation of African Americans, who overwhelmingly vote for Democratic candidates.

As in Georgia, voters in Michigan are facing criminal allegations in a state where top Republicans are fixated on voter fraud (they also seem to have a thing for shutting off Detroit residents' access to water). Civil rights organizations argue that conservatives oversell the threat of voter fraud to justify discriminatory voter ID laws. Johnson, the Republican secretary of state, came under fire in 2012 for citing shaky statistics on supposed voter fraud to plug her own controversial voter ID program. Her proposal included a provision—vetoed by her fellow Republican in the governor's office, Rick Snyder—to require voters to reaffirm their citizenship on ballot applications.

Dolente of the Michigan Election Coalition says that voter education should be a top priority in communities that may be less accustomed to the state's arcane voting procedures.

In Dearborn Heights, a city with a growing Arab-American population, the recent saga began last month when would-be voters began complaining that election workers were obstructing their efforts to attain absentee ballots. Amid the allegations, the embattled city clerk resigned, but then abruptly rescinded his resignation. Friday’s announcement of a state criminal inquiry appeared to deepen the distrust, and local advocates held a news conference outside Dearborn Heights City Hall imploring the federal government to monitor Tuesday’s election.

“Sadly, and what seems to be the case today, the number one response historically to valid claims of voter suppression is the all too common story of voter fraud,” Fatina Abdrabboh, Michigan director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said at the press conference. “Historically, voter fraud claims are raised only after credible claims of voter suppression, as we have in this instance. ”

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