My Experience As A Voter Registration Fellow

As the Voter Registration Fellow at the Arab American Association of NY, I was given the chance to experience and work with the Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities in an entirely different way. I worked with a great team of volunteers who went above and beyond all expectations; together we registered over 400 voters across the city for the 2013 NYC mayoral election. 

As our team struggled to get as many community members as possible registered to vote, we saw a lot of reactions ranging from cold resistance to jubilant enthusiasm. We got the chance to interact with diverse peoples at parades and festivals with the Arab and South Asian communities, college campuses, youth groups, libraries, and parks. We had unique conversations with community members during our phone banks, and got to experience that special satisfaction when you change an apathetic person’s mind and suddenly they’re looking forward to voting. This felt like a major triumph after having to exercise extreme patience with others who were far from polite on the phone. We were really able to see what a long way we’ve come as an immigrant community, and also what challenges we still have ahead of us. 

The Muslim, Arab and South Asian community, so often lumped into one demographic, is like a sleeping giant. Given our tremendous numbers, our potential to make noticeable, lasting change in our city is enormous, though many of us haven’t quite woken up to this realization just yet. There are, however, many grassroots groups, community leaders, and newly elected politicians in our city this year that are conscious of our hidden strength. The 2013 elections saw city council seats all over New York up for election. This drew great excitement in the Muslim, Arab, and South Asian community; the political layout of the whole city could potentially be reorganized in a way that would suit our needs and interests. 

Our vote is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal, but it needs to be more widely understood and utilized. Some in our community are still very reluctant to exercise their right to vote, or even register. This is an attitude that we need to move away from. However, we’ve also encountered many people who are excited about voting and being a part of the political process. In order to position our community into a powerful voting block, we need to push against that reluctance and completely embrace the excitement of voting, taking ownership over the direction of our city. 

At one of the community events in Brooklyn where our voter registration team was combing through the crowds, mayoral candidates came to speak one after the other to try to win over voters from the South Asian community. We need to take a moment to realize how significant this is. For candidates to come and try to win us over at the height of their campaign means they see us as a people worth investing in. 

The importance of our community in the eyes of politicians must continue. If we want to win major battles like ending the NYPD surveillance of Muslims and having Eid incorporated into the public school calendar, then we need to remain a community that is civically engaged. We definitely have the numbers; New York has long been a city in which people of color hold the majority ticket. Unfortunately, numbers are only visible to politicians when they represent registered voters who turn out to the polls in droves for every election. It’s through engaging our system and staying active as voters that we keep our communities on the agenda and not the sidelines. 

Voting is just the beginning. To keep pushing for reforms in our city, we have to be recognized as a people who make waves and mobilize even when it’s not an election year. If we stay vigilant, policy makers will think twice about passing legislation that marginalizes the Arab, Muslims, and South Asians of New York or any other racial or religious minorities. We must remind our politicians, even the ones we support, that the next election is their judgment day, and we will be ready. 

-Arslan Rahman