2020 marks one of the most contentious and important elections in the United States’ 244-year history. With American expats abroad numbering somewhere around nine million, 6.5 million of those living outside the country are estimated to be eligible to vote.

But only seven percent voted in the 2016 election. If even 45 percent of them were to vote, that is more than the 2.86 million votes by which President Trump lost the popular vote in 2016.

Arab-Americans make up a significant portion of Americans abroad.

Arab-Americans make up a significant portion of those Americans abroad. While they have been largely ignored as a political constituent, efforts are ongoing to change that.

Data on Arab-Americans

Domestically, there are nearly 3.5 million Arab-Americans in the 50 states and in Washington, D.C., according to the Arab-American Institute (AAI) based on data compiled by Zogby International; 94 percent of them reside in the metropolitan areas of major cities. As a bloc, Arab-Americans residing in the US are becoming an important economic and electoral minority.

But what about Arab-Americans living abroad? Not every state records overseas ballot requests or submissions. Almost all of the states that do, however, have noted a significant increase in voter interest, and many overseas voters are reporting voting for the first time.

Arab Americans vote

Vote from abroad

One of the difficulties in accurate data collection about Arab-Americans in general is that under the standards on race and ethnicity of the US Office of Management and Budget (which sets policies for the collection of statistics by US federal agencies), census respondents who specify their origin in the Middle East or North Africa are generally counted as “white.” While efforts have been ongoing to establish a new “MENA” category since the 2010 census, it was not adopted for the 2020 census. AAI’s data therefore differ from Census data.

According to the 2010 US Census, the city with the largest percentage of Arab-Americans is Dearborn, Michigan, a southwestern suburb of Detroit, at nearly 40 percent. The Detroit metropolitan area is home to the largest concentration of Arab-Americans (403,445), followed by the New York City Combined Statistical Area (371,233), Los Angeles (308,295), San Francisco Bay Area (250,000), Chicago (176,208), and the Washington D.C. area. (168,208).

Battleground states such as Michigan, Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania also have high concentrations of Arab-American residents.

2020 Election

In the 2016 elections, Arab-Americans voted for Clinton over Trump by 60 percent to 26 percent. Many have predicted that with events since then, such as the Trump administration’s outright Muslim ban and increasing hate crimes against Muslims, this gap is likely to widen in the 2020 election.

According to the Arab-American Vote 2020 poll, released October 27, turnout of Arab-Americans will be “very high in this election.” Slightly more than 80 percent reported that they are “very likely to vote.” Most Democrats (52 percent) said they are either voting early in person or by mail. Most Republicans (62 percent) said they would vote on election day.

Arab Americans vote

Map of US states with the highest Arab-American population (Courtesy of The New Arab)

Where the Arab-American vote will be most critical is in the key battleground states of Michigan (where Arab-Americans constitute as much as 5 percent of the vote), and Ohio and Pennsylvania (where they range between 1.7 to 2 percent of likely voters).

According to the poll, Arab-Americans view President Donald Trump as having been “ineffective in addressing most issues of priority concern to their community.”

The poll reported that 59 percent said they would vote for Democratic candidate Joe Biden.  Only 35 percent said they would vote to reelect Trump.

Is Voter Mobilization Working?

Despite the lack of data on Arab-Americans living outside of the US, grassroots and coalition building efforts have been ongoing across MENA and Africa. Democrats Abroad (DA) – an arm of the Democratic Party that has been active in voter mobilization outside the US for decades, with a network of thousands of volunteers and country committees around the world – has been leading the charge.

According to Julia Bryan, Global Chair of Democrats Abroad, going into the 2020 election, traffic to the Democrats Abroad website is up by 270 percent from 2016.

Democrats Abroad, like every organization that relies on community and person-to-person interaction, “faced a challenge earlier this year” due to the pandemic, according to Will Bakker, DA Regional Vice Chair for Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

“Democrats Abroad innovated with video-conferenced voter help and an unprecedented phone banking campaign.”

“Our volunteers responded with creativity and passion, connecting with voters around the world like never before. Democrats Abroad innovated with video-conferenced voter help and an unprecedented phone banking campaign. We set a new course as organizers, in order to help our country set a new course,” Bakker said.

“The volunteers of Democrats Abroad are doing everything [they] can to turn out the vote. We aim not just to win, but to win overwhelming majorities that enable Democrats to make the change we need for a more perfect government and a more humane and just society.”

While success is difficult to measure, efforts do seem to be paying off. “We’re seeing remarkable turnout,” observed Bakker.

Arab-Americans vote

Democrats Abroad

Edward Gabriel, former US Ambassador to Morocco and the President and CEO of The Gabriel Company, who has been working hard as a surrogate for the Biden campaign to the Arab-American community, agrees.

“I’m excited by what I’m seeing. More than ever, our community is excited and motivated to vote, and has a real desire to be the winning difference for Joe Biden in the crucial battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio,” Gabriel told Inside Arabia,

However, challenges remain. Bakker cited “needless obstacles to Americans voting,” such as “postal delays, unclear instructions, or misleading information.”

While DA can “almost always” help an overseas voter overcome these, he says that the US needs a system “built around making it easier and simpler to vote, to include every American.”

Bakker added, “I’m proud that the Democratic Party stands for that, although I cannot understand why anyone stands against it.”

Ridah Sabouni, Democrats Abroad Country Committee Chair for the United Arab Emirates, which is home to many expatriate Arab-Americans, told Inside Arabia that the number of Democrats Abroad UAE members has doubled over the past two years.

“We have seen enormous interest in the election from Americans living in the UAE.”

“We have seen enormous interest in the election from Americans living in the UAE,” Sabouni said. “Many of our members are Arab-Americans, including some who are voting for the first time and some who have been impacted by Trump’s arbitrary and xenophobic ‘Muslim Ban.’”

Morocco, Egypt, and Lebanon also have concentrations of Americans of Moroccan, Egyptian, and Lebanese heritage.

This year, DA country committees across MENA and Africa have collaborated on voter awareness and mobilization events to present creative programming such as online concerts and Zooms featuring Ambassadors, reaching out to Arab-Americans in the MENA region to get them involved.

DA Morocco’s country committee has focused on reaching Arab-Americans through messaging in Arabic and Moroccan. DA funded a short video project incorporating Moroccan dialect and modern standard Arabic that will be used in Morocco and throughout the MENA region to inform, inspire, and empower Arab-Americans to vote.

What is clear is that more Americans than ever with origins in the MENA region are participating in the electoral process — and not just as voters. They are also running for Congress.

Ihssane Leckey, the first Moroccan-American woman ever to run for Congress (Massachusetts’ 4th District), has been in the spotlight this year.

Leckey told Inside Arabia that she wants Arab-Americans and Amazigh-Americans to “unite and vote” for the Biden/Harris ticket to “save the soul of our beloved country and to continue our collective work towards liberty and justice for all.”

Still Time to Vote?

More than 69 million Americans have already voted as of this writing, more than half of the total votes in 2016. The last day of the election is November 3.  It is not too late to cast your ballot, but ballot request and return requirements differ state by state. Check the federal Voting Assistance Guide. The best way to protect your right to vote is to be informed.


 Note: The author is Democracy Lead for “Democrats Abroad Morocco”.