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From the very inception of the United States, political leaders have used the nation’s federal, state and local laws to disenfranchise groups of individuals. Old forms of voter suppression, including literacy tests and poll taxes, have paved the way for newer, more subtle ways such as voter intimidation, misinformation campaigns and voter ID laws.
Although there is a clear separation of church and state in America’s government, discrimination against different religions persists. Muslim Americans have been the targets of Islamophobia, violence and even voter suppression.
As part of its latest podcast, America the Voiceless, The North Star spoke to Lani Habrock, the government affairs director for the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), to talk about voter suppression tactics at play in Oklahoma and those being used against Muslim Americans.
Habrock explained that CAIR Oklahoma has worked to increase voter access, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization worked to repeal and update laws in Oklahoma that require absentee voters to notarize their ballot by an official notary public for their ballot to be valid.
Though the effort to repeal the law failed, legislators in the state recognized the issues posed by the pandemic and have allowed voters to mail in a copy of an ID to have their vote counted. Habrock emphasized that this move is hardly a solution, but still creates an “unnecessary barrier” on voters.
Voter Suppression Against Muslims
CAIR also actively works to fight against voter suppression of Muslim voters. Habrock explained a situation caught by the organization’s New York chapter, in which hundreds of absentee primary ballots in Lackawanna, New York, were disqualified.
“CAIR New York discovered that more than 200 absentee ballots that were filed were objected…there were objections placed on them, basically, they weren't going to count them,” Habrock explained. “CAIR New York recognized that all of those 200 or majority of those 200 had overtly Muslim or Middle Eastern sounding names. …They filed [an] information request to the county election board and within an hour of filing that request, the objections were withdrawn. So that's a concrete, hard example of discrimination in voting in absentee voting being carried out and thankfully it was caught.”
Thankfully, similar cases of ballots being denied for Muslim or Arabic-sounding names have not been documented in Oklahoma, Habrock told The North Star. However, she noted that there is a distinct anti-Muslim atmosphere in her home state.
In 2010, Oklahoma voters had to decide on State Question 755, a ballot initiative that proposed courts should be forbidden from considering or using Sharia Law. However, Oklahoma courts never cite Islamic Sharia Law and some believed state Republicans used Islamic law as a way to encourage voter turnout among hardcore conservatives, The Atlantic reported.
The law was eventually overturned and it was ruled that the state question was unconstitutional.
“We have a history of anti-Muslim rhetoric and discrimination in our state, and this easily translates over into personal attitudes and voting,” Habrock said. “We have Muslims in Oklahoma who want to vote, but who fear for…vigilantes.” She added that this anti-Muslim atmosphere could translate into voter intimidation, particularly against Muslim women who choose to wear hijabs.
Fighting Against Voter Suppression
Habrock, like many other “America the Voiceless” guests, emphasized the need for civic education to fight voter suppression. As part of her job at CAIR Oklahoma, Habrock said that she encourages civic engagement and education so that Muslim American voters in her state know their rights at the voting booth.
For example, Muslim American voters in Oklahoma, as well as other voters across the U.S., have the right to have a translator at the polls. These voters are also allowed to take a piece of paper that lists the candidates they want to vote for into the voting booth as long as they don’t show it to anybody else.
Habrock said her organization has released voting guides that outline individuals’ voting rights or what voter intimidation looks like. CAIR Oklahoma also organizes an event called “Muslim Day at the Capitol,” in which 200 or more Muslims are taken to visit the Capitol to see their representatives. She noted that this event is crucial for voters and representatives alike.
“It’s much more difficult to discriminate and to engage in hateful rhetoric of somebody when they’re across the desk from you,” Habrock said. “And it’s much more difficult to say bad things and to incite fear whenever you’ve met your actual constituents that you maybe been afraid of your whole life or that you’ve been told untruths about.”
She also encouraged non-Muslim Americans to get to know their Muslim neighbors and to become an ally. Habrock, who is not Muslim, said this was especially important for politicians from either side of the aisle.
“I think the most important lesson that we need to learn is that people are people are people…it doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is, or the culture that you come from, or the religion that you practice,” Habrock said. “People generally want the same things.”
“The majority of us, we want the same things…we want to live in peace and safety. We want our children to have education and we want to have food on our plate and we want to have love in our life,” she continued. “That’s the lesson that I think we all need to learn, whether you’re Muslim, Christian, Jewish, whatever, we all need to recognize the humanity in one another, especially when we go to vote.”
About the Author
Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.