Posted on October 19, 1998 in Washington Watch

This year’s election will be decided by voter turnout. At the end of the day that is all that counts. With all of the emphasis that modern political campaigning places on raising huge amounts of money, buying television advertising and hiring high priced political consultants and media advisors, the final verdict is up to the voters. And the measure of the effectiveness of all of the money spent and the advisors hired is determined by how many votes they produce.

In what is expected to be a year of low voter turnout, a handful of voters will make a difference in a number of congressional and Senate races.

The same has been true in past elections as well. In 1994, for example, the year the Republicans swept control of the Congress and the Senate, 41 congressional races were decided by a combined total of only 34,000 votes! Some congressional elections that year were decided by a few dozen votes.

In such a political setting there are lessons to be learned.

Small voter groups, if organized, can become a decisive force in determining an election’s outcome. Even a group that comprises only one percent of the total voters in a district can use their vote as leverage in a close election.

The prominent American sociologist, Seymour Martin Lipset, understood this fact and used it to explain the political power of the Jewish community in the United States. Writing some 15 years ago in a pamphlet entitled “The Political Future of American Jews”, Lipset noted that among other factors, Jews were politically powerful because their population was concentrated, they were organized and they voted in numbers larger than the national average. Lipset pointed out that the high Jewish turnout combined with an overall low voter turnout often times resulted in doubling the strength of Jewish voters in some states.

This was a lesson that Reverend Jesse Jackson sought to apply to African American voters. Jackson’s campaign for the presidency in 1984 had one specific goal–to increase African American voter registration and turnout so as to increase the community’s leveraging power in national politics.

Jackson’s targets were major U.S. cities and the southern states of the United States. His success was phenomenal and the results were immediately apparent. In 1984, for example, the African American voter registration and participation in New York City surpassed that of New York City’s Jewish voters. In southern states, as well, the numbers of African American voters swelled.

In the 1986 Senate election, Democrats regained control of the U.S. Senate, which they had lost in the Republican Reagan sweep of 1980–the reason was due to the dramatic increase in African American voters in the South. In every southern state where Democrats won, they lost the white vote to Republicans (who usually won by a 65% to 35% margin). The fact that 95 percent of the African American votes went to the Democrats provided the margin for victory. And in the next few years, African American candidates won historic victories: a Governor in Virginia, a Mayor in New York City and a Senate seat in Illinois, to name a few.

There is a lesson here for Arab Americans as well. A study compiled by the Arab American Institute (AAI) demonstrates that in 55 congressional districts Arab American voters comprise between one to four percent of the vote total. This year, 11 of these congressional districts will feature some of the United States’ closest races.

In 1996 AAI’s exit polling data showed that the Arab American vote turnout was 61 percent. This was significantly higher than the national turnout of 49 percent. With this year’s turnout expected to be in the low 30 percent range, an Arab American response of only 50 percent can increase the community’s numbers to 1.6 to 6 percent of the vote in these 55 districts.

What will be required for this to occur is an intensified community effort to turn out the Arab American vote on Election Day.

Already efforts are in place in several states. Arab American and Muslim American organizations have met to plan a coordinated approach. Television, radio and newspaper ads have been prepared for Arab American media outlets. Staff has been hired, phone banks have been set up and Arab American voter lists have been prepared for some targeted districts.

The effort, at this point, is not candidate specific or partisan–it is simply an organized effort to get out the Arab American vote to enhance the community’s role in U.S. politics at least in some key targeted areas.

This exercise is vital. I’ve argued before that Arab Americans are vulnerable to civil rights violations and defamation precisely because they are perceived as weak. And U.S. policy is biased and skewed by double standards because of the imbalance in domestic U.S. politics. U.S. policy is a function of what politicians think will win votes or lose votes on Election Day. Politics is, therefore, central to Arab Americans finding their rightful place in the U.S. policy debate.

Organizing and mobilizing a community’s voters has worked for American Jews and African Americans. More recently, it has been effectively utilized by Asian Americans and Armenian Americans and it can work for Arab Americans as well.

Already Arab Americans have been recognized as an important constituency in Michigan and Ohio politics–but as the community continues to grow in numbers and strength there are strong possibilities for Arab American clout in Illinois, New Jersey, Virginia and California.

Our community’s slogan this year is “Our vote is our power, on November 3rd let’s use it.” On November 4 as we assess the Arab American exit poll data and the results in several important congressional races it will be clear how effectively Arab Americans were in using their power in 1998.

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