Posted by Claudia Sandell-Gándara on October 31, 2018 in Blog

Gearing up for the midterm elections, a record 800,000 people registered to vote on National Voter Registration Day. This number surpassed the previous record of 771,321 registrations for the 2016 presidential election. For comparison, the 2014 midterms only saw 154,500 new registrations. That’s more than a five-hundred percent increase in voter engagement from midterm to midterm.


In states like Georgia, however, voters are facing rampant voter suppression. Early voting in Georgia started on October 22. People have waited up to four hours in lines to vote, reflecting both a rise in voter turnout and the state’s efforts to make voting less accessible. Georgia has closed 214 voter precincts since 2012. In 2013, a Supreme Court decision struck down a special provision of the Voting Rights Act designed to prevent voting discrimination in certain jurisdictions.


Georgia’s gubernatorial race between Stacey Abrams and current Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp reveals the politics of voter suppression. In 2014, Abrams started the New Georgia Project, an initiative to register 120,000 minority voters across Georgia. Kemp’s office is responsible for enacting Georgia’s voting rights laws. Two laws have disproportionately barred the state’s black and Latino populations from voting in the midterm elections. Let’s take a look at these laws and why they concern us here at the Arab American Institute.    


The first entails rules governing Georgia’s mail-in absentee ballots. The state’s elections and voting offices are rejecting ballots when voters’ signatures are inconsistent with their registration records. According to Fortune, Gwinnett County alone rejected 595 absentee ballots, 300 of which belonged to black and Latino voters.


The second, and a hallmark of Abrams’ opposition to Kemp, is the “exact match” policy. The policy requires voters’ registration data to match the information in the state’s database. Just ahead of Election Day, the state has blocked 53,000 voter registrations due to discrepancies as small as a missing hyphen. A Washington Post analysis shows that the policy has disenfranchised about thirty percent of voters, predominantly people of color.


The ACLU and other advocacy organizations are now suing Georgia’s voting commission, including Kemp, and Gwinnett County Board of Registration and Elections. The “exact match” law, they say, violates the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act and the First and Fourteenth Amendments.


As a civil rights advocacy group, the Arab American Institute is also very concerned with these developments. Drawing it close to home, Georgia comprises the fifteenth largest Arab American population by state, and Gwinnett County is home to the second largest Arab American demographic in the state.


The 2010 census estimated Georgia’s Arab American population at a total of 27,057. Our research, however, suggests that the decennial census largely undercounts Arab Americans. As AAI’s 2011 Census Report argued:

The decennial Census identifies only a portion of the Arab population through a question on “ancestry” on the census long form. Reasons for the undercount include the placement of and limit of the ancestry question (as distinct from race and ethnicity); the effect of the sample methodology on small, unevenly distributed ethnic groups; high levels of out-marriage among the third and fourth generations; and distrust/misunderstanding of government surveys among recent immigrants.

Given what we know, a large number of Georgia’s rejected voters likely includes Arab Americans. Voter disenfranchisement and incomplete census data both undermine fair and equal representation—democratic principles AAI seeks to uphold.


AAI has spearheaded efforts toward a fair census count since 1993. AAI formally requested that the U.S. Census Bureau’s (USCB) Working Group on Ancestry include a Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) category to ensure more adequate data. The category—listed under “White”— would account for other populations, such as Iranians, who are Middle Eastern but don’t identify as of Arab descent. The MENA category would also better represent both new immigrant populations and established communities. The Bureau’s trial surveys that included the category in 2015 yielded positive results. Recently, AAI also conducted focus groups in key Arab American-populated states, revealing that the MENA category would substantially improve the count’s accuracy.


Yet apparently, data-driven logic and fairness has little value in our democratic institutions. The USCB announced this year that it will exclude the MENA category in the 2020 census. Instead it will include a question about citizenship status without prior research to substantiate its purpose.


Census and voting politics converge at a nexus of gross underrepresentation in the state of Georgia. There, Arab Americans share the plight of fellow communities of color. These communities face voter suppression at the policy and individual level: policies penalize them for changing addresses or visiting relatives overseas during elections; individuals sacrifice hourly wages to wait in lines to cast their ballots.


Democracy doubly fails Arab Americans in states like Georgia with suppressive voting laws. Arab Americans worry that their votes won’t count to elect people who represent their interests. And census data undermines the weight of their interests as a diverse community. Current voting and census policies distort data and obscure disenfranchisement entrenched within our representative democracy.


Arab Americans deserve a fair count and laws that protect every person’s vote. Absent these basic democratic principles, their tax dollars will not reach programs and initiatives that serve their communities, and the exclusion of the Arab American community from civic life will persist.

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