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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Arab Americans double down on democracy in US midterms

More than 60 Arab American candidates are running on Tuesday’s Congressional ballots and local races

Donna Shalala waves as she walks onstage during a campaign rally in Miami, Florida. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Donna Shalala waves as she walks onstage during a campaign rally in Miami, Florida. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

For more than three million Arab Americans, tomorrow’s US midterm elections are not just about Republicans or Democrats. Amid racist attack ads and hate crimes, there is a sense that their future status in the country could be at stake.

Their response has been to mobilise to throw their weight behind the democratic process. Unprecedented levels of Arab American participation in the electoral process can be seen in work focused on voter registration, mobilising voters and fielding more than 60 candidates.

The vote comes at a time when hostility and hate crimes against minorities are on the rise in the US. Last year the Arab American Institute (AAI) documented 6,213 incidents of what it calls hate crimes across 27 states and Washington DC. The year before it documented 6,121 incidents across the country.

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Maya Berry, the institute's executive director said: “There is a sense of a threat, a danger, a genuine sense of concern among the Arab American community of what is going on in the country."

This worry is driving Arab Americans to participate in the electoral process like no other time in US history, argues Ms Berry.

Ms Berry describes the process as “doubling down on democracy”, and cites record numbers in voter registration of Arab Americans in the 2018 elections. A flood of volunteers canvassing in key states or working the phones at the AAI are examples of this activism.

If it translates into votes on Tuesday, it could mean Rashida Tleib and Ilhan Oma – the first two Muslim and Arab American women – are elected to Congress.

The participation is not limited by age. Donna Shalala, 77, a Lebanese-American, and Ammar Najjar, a 29-year-old with Mexican, Palestinian and American roots both have a shot at winning in Florida and California as Democrats in Congress, while Chris Sununu, 44, could be elected as the Republican governor of New Hampshire.

In 1998, AAI launched "Yalla Vote", an effort to galvanise Arab Americans to cast their vote in US elections. Making up 5 per cent of the electorate in Michigan, and 1.5 to 2 per cent in Ohio and Pennsylvania, the community could tip the balance in races that typically are won by razor-thin margins. This year alone there has been more than 50 Yalla Vote registration events across 18 states.

For the first time as well, AAI is backing ballots initiatives, two in Michigan and one in Florida. The Florida effort aims to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated Floridians. In Michigan, proposal 2 takes on gerrymandering and drawing of election districts, and Proposal 3 removes barriers to voting and implements safeguards for elections, including automatic voter registration and allows any voter to cast an absentee ballot.

The participation and rise of Arab-American candidates is at times being met with smears from opponents. “Ammar Campa-Najjar is working to infiltrate Congress. He’s used three different names to hide his family’s ties to terrorism,” one such ads reads. Both Ms Omar and Ms Tlaib have been labeled by the some on the far-right “as two Jihadi US candidates with connections to terror organisations.”

Arab-American participation and their prospects of winning will all depend on turnout. Campaigns to drive voters to the polling stations and make last-minute calls are in place, while the surge in millennial and youth participation in the community is giving organisers hope that this time it may be different.