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Analysis

Ohio Take Note: Fairness Is a Universal Value

Muslim advocates are challenging unfair voting district maps in court.

  • Tala Dahbour
December 3, 2021

Muslim Amer­ic­ans have made great strides in the last decade in reach­ing local, state, and federal halls of power. In the face of rampant anti-Muslim senti­ment follow­ing 9/11 and blatantly discrim­in­at­ory exec­ut­ive orders of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, Muslims across the coun­try have organ­ized to combat racial and reli­gious discrim­in­a­tion. Nonethe­less, in Ohio, severely gerry­mandered maps drawn at the expense of Muslim communit­ies threaten to perpetu­ate the polit­ical exclu­sion of Muslim voices.

Anti-Muslim rhet­oric creates barri­ers to inclu­sion for a diverse and signi­fic­ant reli­gious minor­ity. Indeed, recent stud­ies show contin­ued growth in Islamo­pho­bia despite, or perhaps more accur­ately, because of, the recent successes of prom­in­ent Muslim lead­ers. As a civil rights and advocacy organ­iz­a­tion for Ohio Muslims, the state chapter of the Coun­cil on Amer­ican-Islamic Rela­tions (CAIR-Ohio) works to combat discrim­in­a­tion and empower the community through civic engage­ment and policy advocacy. But the work of CAIR-Ohio and the voices of our communit­ies too often fall on the deaf ears of disin­ter­ested lawmakers, lead­ing Muslims to believe that their views do not matter.

This prob­lem will be compoun­ded by the severely gerry­mandered legis­lat­ive maps adop­ted by the Ohio Redis­trict­ing Commis­sion in Septem­ber. These district lines carve up cohes­ive, tight-knit communit­ies who pray together, support each other, and share polit­ical concerns. The effect of this gerry­mander is profound: voting power is diluted, thereby discour­aging parti­cip­a­tion among Muslims (already the lowest among major reli­gious groups) and limit­ing the outreach received from candid­ates for office and lawmakers.

That is why CAIR-Ohio, along with other Ohio-based organ­iz­a­tions and voters, chal­lenged these maps in court, look­ing to enforce new provi­sions of the state’s consti­tu­tion that guard against partisan gerry­man­der­ing. On Decem­ber 8, the Ohio Supreme Court will hear argu­ments to decide whether these provi­sions will have teeth, or whether minor­ity communit­ies will have to endure unfair maps once again.

The 2015 consti­tu­tional reform suppor­ted by 71 percent of Ohio voters repres­en­ted a path­way to fair­ness. It estab­lished a bipar­tisan, public process for draw­ing legis­lat­ive districts, with safe­guards against partisan abuses. Given the import­ance of these protec­tions to uplift­ing minor­ity voices, CAIR-Ohio has been deeply involved in the redis­trict­ing process since the start of this year. Indeed, we joined the Ohio Citizens’ Redis­trict­ing Commis­sion, the Equal Districts Coali­tion, and the Equal District­s–­Grass­roots Mobil­iz­a­tion Subcom­mit­tee, and we’ve been engaged in the fight for fair maps through community events, train­ing citizens on mapping, distrib­ut­ing educa­tional mater­i­als, testi­fy­ing at hear­ings, and speak­ing at town halls.

Our staff and Muslim community members came out to testify about the long-felt disen­fran­chise­ment with the hope that the 2015 amend­ment would lead to mean­ing­ful change. This hope was crushed by the Repub­lican major­ity on the Ohio Redis­trict­ing Commis­sion, which refused to honor reforms. The commis­sion held a haphaz­ard process that allowed for minimal public input, giving as little as 24 hours notice for public hear­ings sched­uled during tradi­tional work hours. It took testi­mony within days of dead­lines and provided extremely limited oppor­tun­ity to comment on proposed maps. The result­ing state legis­lat­ive maps — both aggress­ively pro-Repub­lican gerry­manders — added insult to injury. They awar­ded the GOP with a veto-proof super­ma­jor­ity in both state legis­lat­ive cham­bers, despite Repub­lic­ans winning less than 55 percent of the statewide vote, and they disreg­arded public input. Dr. Samina Sohail, a Hamilton County community member who has been an active voice in redis­trict­ing, shared her disap­point­ment with how this process unfol­ded:

“As a Muslim Amer­ican who has been engaged in the public redis­trict­ing process by submit­ting testi­mony on multiple occa­sions, it is disheart­en­ing to see my voice being dismissed in this way. Equal repres­ent­a­tion is the hall­mark of our demo­cracy, and fair maps are para­mount in preserving this. When the major­ity in power forego protect­ing this, they are the ones respons­ible for threat­en­ing that which truly makes our coun­try great.”

The result­ing gerry­mander was put in place at the expense of Ohio Muslim communit­ies that are clustered around mosques in the Cincin­nati, Dayton, Clev­e­land, Colum­bus, and Toledo areas. These mosques are more than places of worship — they are community centers that host numer­ous cultural, educa­tional, and civic engage­ment activ­it­ies. Those who live in surround­ing areas have shared lived exper­i­ences and shared polit­ical needs. But, the districts slice these communit­ies into pieces for partisan advant­age, thereby dimin­ish­ing the collect­ive polit­ical influ­ence of Muslims in Ohio.

Notably, the community around the Noor Islamic Cultural Center, the largest mosque in cent­ral Ohio, is split between two state house districts. This “crack­ing” makes it less likely that the community will receive mean­ing­ful outreach from candid­ates or constitu­ent services. Despite months and months of testi­mony, the commis­sion ignored the chorus of community members asking to be drawn into a single district. This treat­ment of Muslim communit­ies complic­ates CAIR-Ohio’s advocacy efforts by frag­ment­ing staff time and capa­city to make signi­fic­ant inroads with poli­cy­makers.

The Repub­lican major­ity on the Ohio Redis­trict­ing Commis­sion has failed all Ohioans by ignor­ing the 2015 reform and ramming through an egre­gious gerry­mander. But it’s Ohio’s Muslim and minor­ity communit­ies that bear the brunt of the impacts. The commis­sion’s actions have sent a danger­ous message about the state of demo­cracy in Ohio, discour­aging citizens from exer­cising demo­cratic rights by lock­ing in polit­ical outcomes no matter how much organ­iz­ing takes place.

Ohioans, partic­u­larly members of reli­gious and racial minor­ity communit­ies, deserve maps that work for the collect­ive good rather than the interests of one polit­ical party. It is now up to the Ohio Supreme Court to ensure that this becomes real­ity.

Tala Dahbour is the policy director for the Ohio chapter of the Coun­cil on Amer­ican-Islamic Rela­tions, the largest Muslim civil liber­ties organ­iz­a­tion in the coun­try.