The 2020 Muslim vote: Are there any cultural divides among American Muslim voters?

The 2020 Muslim vote: Are there any cultural divides among American Muslim voters?
Muslims account for 1.1% of the US population, yet their voter turnout is relatively low, but how important of a voting demographic are Muslims? Important enough to influence policy?
5 min read
01 November, 2019
The 2020 United States presidential election are scheduled for November 3, 2020 [Getty]

Watching the daily news coverage of the 2020 election campaigns, it's common to hear about the Jewish, evangelical, black, Hispanic, rural, or women's vote. But the Muslim vote? Rarely. There are signs that might soon be changing.

"It doesn't take much to notice that the entire country, politically, has changed," says Hussam Ayloush, Executive director at CAIR – Los Angeles Chapter and Executive Board Member at California Democratic Party.

"They [the president and his administration] have used Muslims and other minorities as punching bags. Muslims feel they need to be more engaged.

"He's made our job of mobilising Muslims a lot easier," Ayloush adds.

Muslims account for 1.1 percent of the US population, yet their voter turnout is relatively low – only 63 percent of young Muslim adults reported being registered to vote, compared with 85 percent of all young adults.

Read more: Muslim group blames Trump for surge in Islamophobic attacks

This appeared to shift with the 2018 midterm election, as a record-number of Muslims cast their votes and ran for office, taking part in the blue wave that swept the country. It also brought about 'The Squad' and more than 100 Muslim candidates at the local, state and national levels, with even more at the state and local levels the following year.

Ayloush estimates that before 9/11 around 80 percent of Muslims were Republican.

Among them is Ibraheem Samirah, a Palestinian-American dentist, who in 2019 was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates at the age of 27. To win his election, he says he focused on common issues facing his constituents, such as healthcare, the economy and the environment. So far, he hasn't seen a culture of voting among Muslims.

"I don't see people talking about that. They're not where they should be in their engagement. They need to see the power of voting," he said.

Although US Muslims are still not as engaged as other communities, numbers show that they are indeed on the rise. In fact, the uptick in candidates and voters could hold the key to some of the swing state election results.

According to Emgage, a Muslim voter advocacy and research group, important swing states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia saw a significant increase in Muslim voter participation in the 2018 midterm elections. Muslim Americans voted 25 points higher than they did in 2014, while the general population voted 14 points higher in these states.

Read more: Palestinian, Muslim, woman and American: Inside Rashida Tlaib's historic run for congress

But Muslims affinity to liberal politics wasn't always the case. Until 9/11, the majority of Muslims voted Republican due to the party's relatively stronger engagement with the community, in addition to socially conservative values. In fact, until recently, many politicians appeared to see it as a liability to be seen as courting the Muslim community.

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Muslims tended to vote for Bush, instead of Al Gore. Bush was inclusive, whereas Gore did not want to be seen as courting Muslims, seeing it as a liability to his prospects.

Since then, there has been a marked increase in Muslim voter engagement, as communities across the country have become mobilised in the face of dangerous racist rhetoric, discriminatory policies and a rise in hate crime.

According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism (CSHE), hate crimes in the US increased by nine percent in 2018, a decade-high. This is also the case for other minority communities, including Jews, who are increasingly collaborating together to fight for civil rights and other common causes.

"Ten years ago, Muslims tended to be more driven by their own unique issues," says Ayloush. "We've diversified our portfolio and we've matured as a community. Young Muslims have friends from all communities. This period in history, over the past 2-3 years, has been a turning point for many Muslims.

"Everybody realised we're all in it together. We can't see injustice in others and think we're immune. Even if we become fully accepted, we should never stop struggling for equality for everyone," he adds. 

This new generation of Muslim voters are firmly in the Democratic camp.

Similarly, Farrah Khan, who was elected to the city council in Irvine, California in 2018, says that a lot of her energy since taking office has focused on different immigrant communities, such as supporting the Vietnamese and Latino communities when they were being targeted by ICE [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement].

Still, she notes that her identity has been an important factor for some Muslims who have previously been unengaged with politics. When door-knocking for her campaign, she recalls a woman telling her, 'I like that I can vote for someone I recognise in myself.'

"Sometimes it takes seeing a fellow Muslim to get people excited. So far, for the 2020 election, the most popular candidate among Muslim voters appears to be Bernie Sanders, the progressive Vermont senator, most recently endorsed by 'the Squad.' This new generation of Muslim voters are firmly in the Democratic camp."

Though this years American Muslim Poll found that young Muslims rate of voting is significantly lower than that of their non-Muslim peers — only 63 percent of Muslim young adults reported being registered to vote, compared with 85 percent of all young adults — US Muslims have shown a willingness to show up for Sanders, according to Emgage

"Definitely Sanders is the most popular. People feel like he is the most authentic. He shows he cares about us. He makes the effort to show us we are part of America. He's the one who relates to us the most. It doesn't matter your age or race. It matters what you're standing for," says Maha Rizvi, a student who has worked as a canvasser and field director for Democrats in southern California, and who was inspired to volunteer for Obama's campaign after her mother (from Pakistan) became a US citizen in 2008.

"In my community, they now come to me or my mum. When they see someone like them, they think: maybe this is something I should be involved with. Sanders' following among Muslim youths runs deep. After the senator suffered a heart attack earlier this month, a group of students formed a WhatsApp group to pray for his recovery. Bernie is seen as the one really getting traction in the Muslim community," says Khan.