Motivated Muslim Voters Could Prove Consequential In Key Swing States

Although Muslim Americans make up only 1% of the U.S. population, their concentration in battleground states could determine the 2020 election.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

The year’s election could be the one where Muslim American voters really make the difference.

Two polls conducted over the summer by the U.S. Immigration Policy Center (USIPC) at the University of California, San Diego, found that Muslim voters in Arizona and Georgia, two swing states with sizable Muslim populations, were more motivated to vote in 2020 than ever before and that they could influence the outcome of the presidential election in their states, as well as local elections.

“Muslim voters, like other population subgroups, are increasingly consequential for American politics, especially as long as we have an Electoral College that can decide presidential outcomes by tens of thousands of votes,” said Tom K. Wong, an associate professor and director of the center.

The surveys estimate there will be as many as 60,000 Muslims voting in each of the two states ― enough to make a difference especially in toss-up races down ballot.

“When we think about statewide election results decided by potentially tens of thousands of voters, it becomes harder to attribute a win or loss to any particular subgroup. But when we think about our county board of supervisors or our city council members, and ... that some of those races are decided by not tens of thousands of votes, not even thousands of votes, but sometimes hundreds of votes, then that is another sort of venue in which we can potentially see the Muslim electorate [shaping] outcomes in November 2020,” said Wong.

Despite their small numbers overall ― Muslims make up just 1% of the U.S. population ― there are significant concentrations of Muslim Americans in key presidential swing states such as Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

In Michigan ― where more than 270,000 Muslims constitute nearly 2.75% of the population ― Bernie Sanders won the 2016 Democratic primary over Hillary Clinton in part because of Muslim voters.

More than 86% of Muslim voters in Arizona said it was “absolutely essential” to have a president who understood the issues facing Muslims in the U.S., according to a USIPC poll.
More than 86% of Muslim voters in Arizona said it was “absolutely essential” to have a president who understood the issues facing Muslims in the U.S., according to a USIPC poll.
U.S. Immigration Policy Center

Uzma Jafri, a 43-year-old Muslim American physician based in Phoenix, has already voted by mail. She suspects that some Muslims in her community didn’t vote in 2016 in part because they falsely assumed their votes were insignificant and because there were few initiatives to correct those views. Mosques, for example, were hesitant to host civic engagement programs or politicians out of fear of endangering their nonprofit status as houses of worship.

“Unfortunately, I think people in the Muslim community [in Arizona] do have that delusion that because we are a red state, their vote doesn’t matter,” said Jafri. “The interest was really low so I think the political literacy in the Muslim community, especially in a swing state, needs to go up.”

But since 2016, she said she’s seen a dramatic increase in civic engagement in her Muslim community and she hopes more Muslim Americans will follow suit.

Leaning Left

Muslim Americans strongly prefer a Democrat for president: 51% opted for a Democrat while just 16% favored a Republican in a survey run during the presidential primary season last spring by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. At the time, that Democratic support was split between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Muslim support for President Donald Trump’s reelection sat at just 14% ― a clear minority albeit 10 percentage points higher than Muslim support for his election in 2016.

Nationwide, more than 66% of Muslims identify as Democrats compared to only 13% who identify as Republicans, according to a 2018 Pew Research poll.

Since the rise of Trump, followed by the election of the most diverse Congress ever in 2018 ― including the nation’s first two Muslim congresswomen ― Democratic politicians have looked to embrace marginalized communities. Indeed, several presidential candidates in this election cycle made it a point to visit mosques on the campaign trail, hire Muslim staffers and speak at Muslim American conferences.

“A lot of times you see that our community isn’t represented [but] it’s changing,” said Ahmed Soussi, the interim executive director for the Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, one of many organizations aiming to increase civic engagement among Arizona Muslims.

In Georgia, Muslim voters chose hate crimes legislation as a top priority in a USIPC poll.
In Georgia, Muslim voters chose hate crimes legislation as a top priority in a USIPC poll.
U.S. Immigration Policy Center

In Arizona, more than 86% of Muslim voters said it was “absolutely essential” to have a president who understood the issues facing Muslims in the U.S., according to data from the USIPC. Many of these voters pointed to immigration, police brutality and health care reform as their top priorities.

In Georgia, Muslim voters wanted the same from the next president and focused in particular on racial justice issues.

The Muslim communities in both states are made up of immigrant Muslims, Black Muslims, and recent refugee populations from the Middle East and Asia.

“Candidates on both the left and the right are taking into account what Muslims want,” said Umer Rupani, executive director at the Georiga Muslim Voter Project. “So I do think that the Muslim community is a large enough and engaged enough voting bloc to swing elections.”

Small Margins Make Big Impacts

Across the country, the Muslim vote has been increasing. In the swing states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Virginia, the percentage of Muslim registered voters who turned out to vote jumped about 20 to 30 percentage points from the 2014 to the 2018 midterm elections.

Florida now has approximately 150,000 registered Muslim voters, said Nadia Ahmad, the co-founder of Muslim Delegates and Allies Coalition and a co-director of Muslims for Biden’s 50-state voter mobilization effort.

“Politicians are looking to see who is voting. Regardless of who wins the state, what’s going to matter is who went out and voted. So if we can draw out our community in droves to go to the polls, it’s going to show that our community has electoral power,” said Ahmad. Voter turnout will also impact policies “whether that’s up to the federal level or state level or the local level,” she said.

Ahmad, who called this year’s level of civic engagement by Muslims unprecedented, pointed to the 2000 election, which was ultimately decided by 537 Florida votes, as evidence that Muslim voters can have impact. That same year, George Bush received approximately 14,000 more Muslim votes in the Sunshine State than his opponent Al Gore.

Virginia Baker and her husband Essam Khattab, both 34 and both Biden supporters in Florida, said it was important for them to vote due to their state’s potential influence in deciding presidential elections. Baker has been voting since she turned 18 and Khattab, a new citizen from Egypt, said politics is all they have been talking about for months.

“I think for both of us, we realize democracy can be very fragile. ... And I think the bare minimum that you can do is cast your vote,” said Baker, adding: “For me, it was just really important to at least have my say and who I wanted and how I want the next four years to look.”

Organizers in the state are pleased with the newfound motivation among Muslim voters.

“It amazes me that you know the community feels like they have a voice now. It’s a beautiful thing to see,” said Vetnah Monessar, a Florida-based community organizer and the founder of MASA, an organization that seeks to advance equity for Muslims in the state.

“There’s a lot of reasons why the community should get out to vote, especially when we’re a targeted community ― from the Muslim ban to hate crimes to our communities being disregarded. I think this is a moment to show that we are part of the fabric of American society and the American community at large and now we bring an asset to the United States,” Monessar added.

Young Muslims protest presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Wichita, Kansas, on March 5, 2016.
Young Muslims protest presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Wichita, Kansas, on March 5, 2016.
Dave Kaup/Reuters

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, where Biden was born and Trump won in 2016, residents know how valuable their ballots are and are working to convince family and friends to vote. For 41-year-old Salima Suswell, a political strategist and organizer currently working with the Biden campaign, that means engaging as many of the 128,000 Muslim residents there as she can.

Pennsylvania’s Muslims largely reside in Philadelphia ― a hub for Black Muslims in particular ― but also in Pittsburgh, Erie County, Johnstown and Harrisburg.

Suswell said it was important for Muslim Americans to participate in every election. “We should be looking at beyond trusting any one presidential administration, and we should look to hold all of our elected leaders accountable to serve our communities and specifically communities of Black and brown people who are most marginalized.”

Preston Nouri, a 21-year-old student at the University of Pittsburgh, said that growing up in Erie County ― one of the few hundred counties that had voted for President Barack Obama and then flipped for Trump ― allowed him to appreciate firsthand how a small number of votes can lead to drastic changes.

All it took was 44,000 votes in Pennsylvania.

“Well, if 44,000 people can decide the election and all 44,000 people thought that their vote didn’t matter, which we can see with voter apathy being on the rise ... that mindset that your vote does not matter is what is going to be, well, the destruction of our democracy,” said Nouri.

A Religious And Civic Duty

In Charlotte, North Carolina, 26-year-old Wajeha Barakat is struggling with immense guilt. She didn’t vote in the 2016 election, largely because she never imagined Trump would win. She said she was naive then and now plans to rectify that wrong.

“It’s important to me [to vote now] because I’ve seen the last four years and how they turned out. Unfortunately, I did not think that my vote counted four years ago, and I did not think that it was possible that America would vote for Trump and I was obviously corrected,” Barakat said.

Nida Allam, who became the first Muslim American woman elected to office in North Carolina when she was elected to the Durham County Board of Commissioners this year, has been meeting with Muslims across the state to remind them of their voting power in their swing state.

Currently, polls show Biden holds a slight lead over Trump in North Carolina. Other races in the state are even tighter. Half of the state’s 30,000 Muslims reside in Charlotte.

“Those state races come down to a few hundred votes. That’s where a few Muslim families sitting out the election can leave Republicans in power in our state legislature in North Carolina,” said Allam, who is currently working to advance two state judicial campaigns.

For people like Barakat, it comes down to their civic duty as a Muslim and an American citizen.

“Just seeing all the indirect backlash [that has come with not voting] and what’s happening with Muslims, what’s happening with Black Lives Matter, what’s happening with the blatant racism that’s come out of Trump and how people are less shy about their racism,” Barakat said.

“It’s just gotten to a point where if I don’t do every single thing in my power to stop this continuing on for the next four years, then I have failed as a citizen and I have failed my civic duty Islamically.”

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