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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
A hijabi woman speaks with an election worker from across a table
Anadolu Agency/Getty

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.