Why Aren’t There Any Polling Stations in NYC Mosques?


Fifty miles north of Miami, the Islamic Center of Boca Raton sports a signature dome and minaret, painted, like many other buildings in the area, a pastel shade of mint green. In June, some residents in the wealthy, mostly white coastal city were sent notices assigning the mosque as their designated polling place for the state’s August primary as well as next month’s presidential election. Florida’s Tri-County area, consisting of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, is home to at least 150,000 Muslims, according to the Florida chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations — a notably fast-growing population in a crucial swing state.

Soon after, a Palm Beach County official began receiving emailed complaints from voters about the selection of the mosque as a polling site. One even hinted at a bomb threat to force an evacuation on Election Day. The county promptly removed the place of worship from the list, reassigning the location to a library nearby. Ironically, the mosque’s president, a Syrian-born computer science and engineering professor at a local college, will cast his vote on November 8 in a church, one of at least fifty on the county polling list.

There have been no similar complaints lodged with the Board of Elections here in New York City. That’s because, according to the most recent list of NYC polling places, there is not a single mosque, Muslim school, or Islamic cultural center being used as a polling site in any of the five boroughs next month. Meanwhile, the Voice counts at least 96 churches, parochial schools, synagogues, and Christian or Jewish community centers in use, out of 1,204 total stations.

“We have all these neighborhoods full of Muslims — why is it that we don’t have Muslim schools or mosques as a polling place?” asked Cheikh Ahmed Mbareck, executive director of the Queens-based Majlis Ash-Shura, or Islamic Leadership Council of New York. “It demonstrates the fact that our community is civically behind [other minority groups].”

There are 3.3 million Muslim Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, about 1 percent of the total population. Estimates of the number in New York City range from 600,000 to 1 million, or as many as one in eight New Yorkers. Voter registration efforts have been part of a larger strategic effort by Muslim religious and civic organizations nationwide to defend themselves against Trump’s vitriol, one that has been largely successful, with the number of registered Muslim voters going from 300,000 in 2012 to 800,000-plus in 2016, by one estimate.

Yet the bureaucratic machinery of voting has chugged along with little regard to all that. For many New Yorkers, years go by with no change to their polling location. The vast majority of the sites are in public schools or community rooms of New York City Housing Authority buildings. Using a city building allows the BOE to avoid paying out the standard fee to businesses, houses of worship, and nonprofits.

When public space is unavailable, the city often turns to churches to pick up the slack. The main criteria for a polling place are that it be fully accessible to the handicapped and that it have ample space for voting equipment and workers. Some mosques would certainly meet that standard.

The addition of Islamic centers of worship to the mix of churches and synagogues — in any of the neighborhoods home to large swaths of the city’s Muslim population, such as Jackson Heights, in Queens, or Parkchester, in the Bronx — would mark a symbolically important moment in New York’s acceptance of that rapidly growing demographic. “It’s important for the same reason that churches and temples are,” said Albert Cahn, director of strategic litigation at the New York chapter of CAIR. “These are major institutions in the city, places where large numbers of New Yorkers can exercise their right to vote.”

Including mosques among the polling places is an obvious good-faith gesture that would accurately reflect the city’s diversity, something city officials never miss an opportunity to brag about. “When you come from a different country, it is difficult to adjust to a language, culture, and [political] system,” said Shameem Ahmed, president of the Bangladeshi American National Democratic Society. Seeing a polling station in a mosque might signal to new Americans that they — and their religion — are welcome components of a larger democratic system. Both Ahmed and Mbareck believe the search for a suitable mosque (Ahmed’s own does not have the space) is a worthy undertaking. “Having poll places in other religious facilities and not having even one in the Muslim community [is] not right,” said Mbareck. “This is something we should add as a community to our tasks to work on.”

The absence of mosques as voting stations is a matter of neglect that goes back at least three presidential cycles: A search of the polling lists from the 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential elections turned up no results for location names containing the words “Muslim,” “masjid,” “Islam,” or “Islamic.” (City records from 2000, before the September 11 attacks, were unavailable.)

In that regard, New York City is not unique. A review of polling lists posted on government websites in Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, and even Dearborn, Michigan (sometimes thought of as the Arab capital of the United States), revealed no mosques or Muslim schools — but dozens of churches — listed as polling stations. In Chicago, there were two: one at an Islamic community center and another at a Muslim college. There was just one synagogue listed.

The venom that has become characteristic not just of the current election, but over recent years, could suggest that the response in Florida is not dissimilar to what you might see elsewhere.

New Yorkers have in the past reacted negatively when it comes to integrating Islam and mosques into the fabric of local culture. Following the 9-11 attacks, a Muslim architect-and-developer duo proposed the highly contested Park51, an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan that critics dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque.” After years of pushback, they finally shifted course and will instead build a museum and luxury condos. And over the summer, a spate of violence against Muslim New Yorkers pushed Mayor Bill de Blasio to launch a citywide anti-Islamophobia campaign, the first of its kind.

Used for voting purposes, said David Elcott, professor of public service at New York University, “mosques, Buddhist or Hindu temples, [and] Sikh temples would be seen as ‘other,’ a reminder of the pervasiveness of the so-called Judeo-Christian culture.” Open an American-history textbook, Elcott notes, and chapters on religion will likely center on Christianity (Protestantism, namely, at that) and Judaism.

Whether we should apply an affirmative-action policy to polling places is a question that has so far not been posed, Elcott says, but “the court would never uphold” the idea that a polling station in a mosque is un-American, as was suggested in Florida. Still, Elcott thinks there would be significant resistance from the public should the attempt ever be made.

“Churches in American culture are considered neutral spaces. You have a significant population that sees Muslims as the enemy of the United States,” he said. “Fighting for Muslim rights is not going to be so easy. Do I think America would be a healthier place? Yeah. But that’s a different question from what I think is going to happen.”

For New York City’s part, de Blasio’s administration has in recent years made some attempts to normalize Islam in the city: This year, public school children stayed home in observance of Muslim holidays Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, which were added to the school calendar in 2015 after years of pressure from Muslim activists (city schools have long closed for Christian and Jewish holidays). And in July, the BOE added an Arabic-language version of the voter registration card.

Mbareck, who moved to New York from Boston four years ago and is originally from Mauritania, admits that an attempt to place a polling place in a mosque might stoke fears that American Muslims are up to something suspicious — why would they need to vote in their own houses of worship? But he sees it as a matter of equality under the law, and notes that Muslims have been voting in churches and temples for years, without complaint. “We walk in and we vote,” he said. The same would be true of other groups voting in mosques.

“You have to stand up for your constitutional right,” Mbareck said. “People will get used to it.”

Don’t miss the rest of our 2016 election coverage on Trump’s America:

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