A coalition of prominent Muslim-American advocacy groups this morning are launching the Million Muslim Votes campaign, an unprecedented $1 million effort to find and persuade Muslims to participate in the 2020 general election.

Led by Emgage, a Washington D.C.-based group aimed at increasing Muslim-American political literacy and civic engagement, the campaign will focus on increasing turnout in several states with sizeable Muslim populations, Emgage CEO Wa'el Alzayat says.

"We believe getting the community to vote in a consistent manner and not just voting in presidential elections but for local, state and national offices, is a crucial ingredient to build political power," Alzayat says. "In 2016, we saw that the scapegoating, demonization of the Muslim community was part and parcel of the electoral strategy of Trump. He was rewarded at the polls. We want to make sure that the Muslim community steps up and votes and gets its voice heard to let the country know how it feels about that."

Emgage will be joined in this effort by MPower, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim Public Affairs Council, MPower Change and Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition, among others. They will target Muslims in Michigan, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, New York, Illinois, Texas and California.

Caucus participants and observers perform evening prayers before caucusing at the Muslim Community Organization Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, in Des Moines.John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty

A Tech-Driven Effort

More sophisticated than a simple get-out-the-vote public awareness campaign, the groups have developed an algorithm "to determine likely Muslim voters, and we overlay it on top of other identifiers like ethnicity models" in purchased voter data, Alzayat says. It's not an exact science; many Muslims don't have stereotypical Muslim-sounding names and some who do are not Muslim.

The process—refined with additional demographic data—has led Emgage to estimate
that more than 675,000 Muslims voted in the 2016 general election in eight of the targeted states. It's not a huge leap, then, to hit 1 million this year, Alzayat says, noting that their 2016 data did not include the number of Muslim voters in California or Texas.

Alzayat says the Million Muslim Votes campaign won't lobby people to vote for any particular candidate. Still, more than 74 percent of Muslim voters backed Democrats in exit polling from the 2012, 2016 and 2018 elections, CAIR says, and so an uptick in Muslim voting in swing states like Michigan could have an influence on the outcome. (Emgage PAC, which does make endorsements and spends money on political advocacy, is a separate entity, he says.)

Still, precise data on the Muslim-American population and their voting habits can be elusive, contradictory and confusing. Pew Research estimated there were 2.15 million adult Muslims in the country. Meanwhile, the Institute for Social Policy Understanding (ISPU) found 73 percent of eligible adult Muslims were registered in 2019, up from 60 percent in 2016. Of that group, 59 percent actually voted, ISPU data says.

Challenges to Judging Success

All of that adds up to a muddled picture that makes it difficult to assess the power of the Muslim vote, says political scientist Youssef Chouhoud of Christopher Newport University in Virginia. He applauded the Emgage effort and said the goal is "believable," but he questioned how Emgage will be able to prove if they hit the goal.

"To say 1 million Muslims are going to vote, I'd be interested in how they'd count that," Chouhoud says. "Getting quantitative data on Muslims is so hard."

Chouhoud and Alzayat agree that Muslims have yet to flex their political muscle to the group's fullest potential. The ISPU study found Muslims have traditionally been insular and focused on their lives within their community and mosques rather than engaging in the broader political conversation. Often when Muslims do reach a level of visibility and political power, as with the cases of Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, they are accused of trying to impose Islamic, or Sharia, law on America.

Such a backlash may well come from Emgage's campaign, Alzayat says.

"Is there a universe where there are some people who will use this to attack the community and say that we're trying to overtake the political system?" Alzayat says. "There are always fringe voices like that."

But, Alzayat says, the campaign ought to be viewed as good for the Muslim community and good for the country. "When you have more of our fellow citizens participating in the political process, you have a more diverse, well-rounded policy supported by a wider segment of the population because you have buy-in," he notes. "We think what we're doing is necessary for the health of our democracy."