It is not generally understood by the American Muslim electorate that a very small group of voters can get what they want out of the American political system, providing that they know what they want and that they understand how American democracy works.
There is much nay-saying among Muslim Americans who start out with pessimistic misconceptions based on the fact that we are very small in numbers. We are not. Actually, an argument can be made that Muslims, along with non-Muslim Arab Americans who see their interest not very different from our own, can squeeze out close to 4 million votes if they made a determined push to put every vote to use. We also predicate our voting patterns on the premise that the rest of the American electorate is hostile to our aspirations. In truth, they are not – they are simply ignorant.
The American political system is constructed along extraordinarily fair principles. One of these principles is that democracy is not simply tyranny of the majority. The Constitution and body of laws go to extreme lengths to protect the political rights of all minorities. There is a presumption – a very wise one indeed – that American society is not monolithic, but consists of a very large number of small interest groups based on economic class, region, race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, and gender, and that each group has the right and duty to assert itself, defend its interests and carve out its own niche in the power structure of this country through the legal, peaceful and constructive machinery of politics. An iron-clad system of elections based on the principle of “one person, one vote” goes far to assure that these principles work in practice, and are not merely theoretical constructs.
Understanding, digesting, and taking advantage of these very fair principles presupposes a reasonably sophisticated electorate. If the voters belonging to a certain small interest group are savvy, that group enjoys power out of proportion of its numbers. This becomes a rout if that group is crafty enough to strengthen its position further by making coalitions with other groups. Conversely, if a substantial minority is apathetic or not educated in the political system, it exposes itself to marginalization. Hispanics (excluding Cuban Americans) seem to fall in that category.
The power of money and of public relations is considerable, but is exaggerated. In the end, it is the vote that counts, and not how much money was spent on 30-second TV commercials.
There is some basic arithmetic American Muslims need to understand. Of around 300 million American citizens, it does not take more than 150 million (a majority) to elect the next president. A startling fact of life is that less than six million Americans – a mere 2% of the populace – will decide who is inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States on January 20th, 2009.
Sounds incredible? Then consider this: out of 300 million Americans, about 245 million are registered to vote. The majority of these voters do not have the sophistication, patience, or interest to participate in primary elections which decide the nominee of each of the two major political parties. The result is that only about 25 million voters, roughly divided between the two major parties, will turn out for the primary elections. It is fair to assume that 12.5 million Americans will vote in the primary election of each major party, give or take a million or so.
Because of the multiplicity of candidates in each party, it is very unlikely that the eventual nominee of either the Democratic or the Republican Party will have received more than 40%, or five million, votes in all the primary elections on the road to nomination. Whoever wins the November election will thus have been picked by five million, maybe six million at the most, Americans!
As I said earlier, Arab Americans and non-Arab American Muslims can garner as many as 4 million votes in the primary elections if they can be induced to go to the polls. These numbers are still not sufficient to pick the nominee all by themselves, but with smart coalition-making, they can definitely deny the most hostile of the major candidates a spot on the November ballot. When the dust settles, the “Muslim vote” will then be something to reckon with in American politics.
There is one more fact that is extremely favorable for American Muslims. It is widely believed that Muslims are concentrated in the ten most populous states in America. The implication of this fact is that ten states will supply more than 50-60% of the delegates to the two major party presidential nominating conventions late this summer. If Muslims gravitate toward one major party and their support coalesces around one candidate, their influence on the nomination process will be even more profound. In all likelihood, that major party will be the Democratic Party in 2008, with either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama as its candidate.
But it all starts with timely voter registration. And if the statistics we have are reliable, only one out of five Muslim Americans is registered to vote, and the window of opportunity will start closing for the remaining primary states.
(Photo: Christian Svanes Kolding via flickr under a Creative Commons license.)
Inayat Lalani is a freelance writer living in Fort Worth, and is active in the Democratic Party in Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.