Million Muslim Votes: campaign seeks unprecedented turnout in US presidential election
Efforts under way to increase Muslim American voter turnout
As the 2020 US presidential election approaches, several groups are working to ensure that as many of America's approximately 3.4 million Muslim citizens as possible make their voices heard at the ballot box.
“The strategies are kind of old school and new school,” said Wael Alzayat, chief executive of Emgage, a family of organisations working to promote and empower Muslim Americans through civic engagement.
In particular, Mr Alzayat was referring to the Million Muslim Votes, a new campaign supported by several civic groups seeking to increase American Muslim voter participation, by turning out one million Muslim voters in the 2020 presidential election. According to polling from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), in the 2016 election, American Muslims were the least likely faith group to be registered to vote.
Mr Alzayat said some of the “old school” strategies for ensuring turnout in 2020 include using voter data to contact people by phone.
“We have access to the voter data and the likely Muslim voters who are registered, so it’s literally contacting households and getting a hold of people and making sure they commit to voting,” he said. “People who actually say ‘I commit to vote’ are more likely to vote.”
Mr Alzayat said the group was making sure not to overlook postal mail and email to ensure that voters do not miss educational materials and important election dates.
Among the “new school” strategies, Million Muslim Votes is investing in text messaging and social media.
However, coronavirus outbreak has forced all civic engagement groups to adjust their strategies leading up to the presidential election in November 3.
“Should the Covid-19 situation improve, we also will conduct door-knocking operations in some of the critical districts,” Mr Alzayat said.
Covid-19 has also caused some of the informational community meetings spearheaded by the group to fall by the wayside, but Mr Alzayat insisted the impact had been minimal.
“There’s been a lot of excitement by activists and organisers to attend our online meetings that we’re conducting.”
Attending one of those online meetings was none other than presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who recently accepted an invitation from Emgage Action to speak at the online Million Muslim Votes summit on July 20.
"He is meeting with Emgage Action to hear the concerns of Muslim Americans," Mr Alzayat wrote in an email. "Our voices are being heard in a way that was unthinkable even a few years ago."
Is it working?
Emgage’s previous efforts to increase Muslim American turnout appear to have paid off.
According to the group, the 2018 midterm elections saw a 25-point increase in registered Muslim voter turnout in Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Virginia. Emgage highlighted Florida in particular, which saw 53 per cent of the state’s 110,000 registered Muslims participate in the midterm election.
Although there has recently been a record number of American Muslims running for US political office at the local, state and national levels, Mr Alzayat said there was plenty of room for improvement in terms of voter turnout.
“Despite those gains, the Muslim vote turnout is still lower than the general population numbers but we do feel like the gap is closing and we hope to narrow it in the upcoming elections,” he said.
Emgage currently has voter canvassing and phone bank operations in Texas, Virginia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida and New York, while also maintaining a similar presence with the help of other organisations in the states of Illinois, Ohio and California.
Some of the other groups assisting with Million Muslim Votes include the US Council of Muslim Organisations, MPower Change, and the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition.
A video produced by Emgage Action is also helping to propel the Million Muslim Votes campaign on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
“2020 is our year…and let’s just be honest here, this current administration does not want us or our votes to count,” Indian American and Muslim singer Zeshan B says in the ad, just before a clip of US President Donald Trump calling for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”.
Mr Alzayat said the ad was actually cut from a longer ad that focused on the power of minority communities to protect their rights.
“We thought that the footage could be very appropriate for the Million Muslim Votes campaign, so we worked with him [Zeshan B] to adapt it and you saw the results, it’s successful,” he said.
But given the partisan tone of the ad, Mr Alzayat insisted it was important to differentiate Emgage Action's ad from Million Muslim Votes overall.
“The Million Muslim Votes campaign is non-partisan,” he said.
“It’s one of a kind when it comes to Muslim American voter mobilisation and analysis on voting,” he added.
Issue importance and Muslim voter impact
In terms of issues that might help increase Muslim voter turnout, there are multiple factors at play.
According to the 2016 report from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, the economy was the most important issue among Muslim voters, followed by civil rights, education, immigration, national security and health care.
In terms of the ideological spectrum, 43 per cent of those surveyed by ISPU identified as moderate, whereas 32 per cent identified as somewhat liberal and 17 per cent as somewhat conservative.
President Trump, however, has definitely changed dynamics. Ever since his 2016 presidential campaign, experts say Mr Trump’s rhetoric aimed at Muslims has significantly affected political involvement and political leanings.
“One thing President Trump has been doing is unifying the viewpoints of all minorities in opposition to him, I suspect the same thing has been happening with Muslim Americans,” said Peter Yacobucci, associate professor of political science at Buffalo State University.
Mr Yacobucci said although Muslim American votes might not make a significant impact on a national scale, they could make a significant difference in several swing states.
“It just so happens that Michigan is a key battleground state for the 2020 race, and I could envision that’s where Muslim American votes could truly matter,” he said, referring to state’s relatively large Muslim population.
According to Mr Alzayat, younger Muslims in the US are increasingly making their voices heard, helping to change the landscape and increasing the importance of the Muslim vote.
“Right now about half of the Muslim population in America is US-born,” he said, noting that some of the older Muslim Americans who emigrated to the US tended to be less civically engaged. “A lot of the immigrants come from places that don’t have strong electoral or civic participation positions.”
Iman Abid, a Muslim American activist in Rochester, New York, says candidates have definitely started to pay more attention to the Muslim community.
“I’ve seen far more political candidates stepping into mosques and having conversations at interfaith centres … really trying to understand what it is that Muslim Americans need in this country.”
Ms Abid echoed the sentiment that younger Muslim Americans have been taking more interest in civic engagement for quite some time, adding that the recent growth of the Black Lives Matter movement had created another plank for many.
“Especially for darker-skinned Muslim Americans,” she said, referring to police policies and concerns about racial profiling.
Not a monolith, other factors
Despite Mr Trump’s call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the US” and his promises to close “some mosques”, among other comments, he does have some Muslim support.
That support, although slim, stretches back to 2016 and appears to have carried into 2020.
A 2018 ISPU survey looking at Trump support among Muslims found that 13 per cent of American Muslim voters approved of the president's job performance.
That support, according to the survey, was strongly linked to increased partisan polarisation throughout the US.
“Muslims who identify as Republican are significantly more likely than either Democrats or self-reported independents to support the president’s job performance,” according to a summary of the findings.
There is also the Bernie Sanders factor. The socialist senator from Vermont evoked unprecedented enthusiasm among Muslims in the US, and although he has endorsed Mr Biden, it remains to be seen whether all of his supporters will show up to vote in November.
The Emgage Political Action Committee, which had previously endorsed Mr Sanders, endorsed Mr Biden shortly after Mr Sanders suspended his campaign, but again, it is unclear if Muslims will show the same level of enthusiasm for Mr Biden.
These variables show just how complicated gauging Muslim American civic engagement can be, but Mr Alzayat remains undeterred, saying he is confident Million Muslim Votes can achieve its objective.
“Increasingly you see the community getting excited behind this campaign and we have a few more months until the election so we can definitely build and maintain this momentum,” he said.
Updated: July 21, 2020 06:40 AM