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How Republicans tried to disenfranchise voters of colour in Michigan

Initial decision by Republican officials to withhold certifying vote in Wayne County sparked flashbacks to racist curbs on voting rights
Michigan Arab Americans vote in Wayne County's Dearborn on 3 November (MEE/Ali Harb)

Across the US electoral map, President Donald Trump won most rural counties as urban centres and metropolitan areas, which are home to ethnically diverse communities, went heavily for his Democratic rival Joe Biden.

In Michigan's Wayne County - home to Detroit, Dearborn and the state's largest communities of colour - President-elect Biden won by 320,000 votes - more than twice his state-wide victory margin. 

So when Republican officials refused to certify the election for the county, specifically objecting to results from Detroit, a city that is 80 percent African American, the incident brought to the surface a painful history of disenfranchising people of colour. 

The Wayne County Board of Canvassers eventually approved the results on Tuesday after an intense outcry, but the reversal did not erase concerns about efforts to challenge Black and brown voters' basic rights.

In an interview with Middle East Eye, Michigan State Representative Abdullah Hammoud struggled to find the words to describe his dismay at the Republican officials' refusal to certify the results and acknowledge the will of the voters.

"It's reprehensible; it's irresponsible and unethical. I mean, every word in the book. It's a dereliction of public duty. You name it. But at its core, it's bigoted. And it's racist."

'We will not go back'

In blistering remarks on Wednesday morning, Detroit columnist and radio host Stephen Henderson said while he is keenly aware of the history of racism in the US, he had never feared for his right to vote - until the board of canvassers' initial decision on Tuesday.

"All of a sudden, I felt in my own gut, what Black Americans before me felt their whole lives," Henderson said on Detroit's public radio, WDET.

As Trump continues to cast doubt on the integrity of the election, Henderson called for a rejection of efforts to suppress the Black vote "from inside the insane asylum that is fomenting it, as well as from the outside".

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"We, as African Americans, will not go back to the barriers our fathers and mothers and great-grandparents smashed and tore down. We will not countenance a requirement that we, and we alone, fight to preserve the legitimate exercise of our voting rights," the radio host said.

"And if this republic falls because we won’t, well, so be it. This nation does not deserve to survive if it cannot meet the most basic measure of equality."

Republican board members Monica Palmer and William Hartmann had cited alleged small discrepancies in some precincts between the number of voters and ballots - common technical errors that happen in almost every election.

But Palmer fuelled outrage when she singled out Detroit for holding up the election results. And it soon emerged that her fellow Republican, Hartmann, has a long history of posting Islamophobic material online.

"There is rumor on the streets that there is a larger number of Muslim immigrants, legal and illegal, moving into Melvindale," Hartmann wrote in a 2016 Facebook post, referring to a small town south of Detroit. "Mostly due to the cheap cost of housing and the lax government there."

Abed Ayoub, legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), shared some of Hartmann's past remarks on Twitter on Tuesday, noting that they were filled with conspiracy theories and hate towards minority groups.

"A look at his Twitter and Facebook shows many racist and Islamophobic posts," Ayoub wrote. "Guess which county in US has largest concentration of Muslims?"

'It's reprehensible; it's irresponsible and unethical... But at its core, it's bigoted. And it's racist'

- Abdullah Hammoud, Michigan legislator

Wayne County is home to large Arab and Muslim communities in cities including Detroit, Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Melvindale and Hamtramck - voters who turned out in large numbers to help defeat Trump earlier this month.

Late on Wednesday, Palmer and Hartmann signed affidavits requesting to rescind their vote, arguing that they were intimidated by activists to approve the results. But a Michigan election official told the Washington Post that it was "too late" for the Republican commissioners to change their vote.

Arab, Black and civil rights advocates had berated the election board's decision last night before it was scrapped.

"It’s plain and simple, folks. The Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers put politics above their duty to our residents," Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib wrote on Twitter

"Suggesting that all of Wayne County can be certified, EXCEPT for Detroit, is horrifying racist and a subversion of our democracy."

Attacks against Arab-American lawmaker

Yemeni-American State Representative-elect Abraham Aiyash addressed the board during the public comment part of the virtual meeting, ridiculing its failure to certify the results of his race, which he won with almost 90 percent of the votes.

Aiyash compared the refusal to certify the results with post-Civil War Jim Crow laws that ensured racial segregation in the American South.

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"You are standing here today telling folks that Black Detroit should not have their votes counted. You are certainly showing that you are a racist," Aiyash said.

He said Palmer would have to deal with the fact that her children's Black classmates would question her decision.

The public outcry eventually spurred another vote, with Palmer and Hartmann changing their stances.

Trump had hailed the initial decision, but the next day news of the certification of the results irked right-wing commentators.

Many referred to Aiyash's passing comment about Palmer's children's classmates, saying that he threatened the Republican official's family.

Trump, himself, amplified the unfounded allegations by retweeting a post to his 89 million followers that said: "WATCH as Democrat State Rep-Elect Abraham Aiyash threatens the children of Wayne County Board of Canvassers member Monica Palmer."

What followed was a barrage of Islamophobic and racist attacks on Aiyash.

"Abraham Aiyash is Yemeni Muslim savage from Hamtramck, the first Muslim majority city in USA," one tweet said. "Intimidation and terrorism are Muslim savages' favorite tactics. That's why Commie China put them into concentration camps."

Rasheed Alnozili, publisher of the Yemeni American News, a local newspaper, defended Aiyash, saying that the incoming state lawmaker is a young, dedicated public servant who would not threaten anyone.

"He was merely expressing his opinion about the outrageous decision not to certify the votes," Alnozili said. 

"Abraham was not only speaking for the Yemeni or Arab or Muslim community; he was speaking for the people of Hamtramck and Detroit in defence of democracy and the people's right to have their votes counted."

Hammoud, the state legislator who represents Dearborn, said he himself was getting hate messages over the manufactured controversy around Aiyash's comments. 

Earlier on Wednesday, Hammoud told MEE he was concerned that the efforts to push back against election results may discourage voters from participating in future elections.

"At a time when we have to give people more confidence that the voting matters, that their vote counts - especially within the Arab and Muslim-American community - here we have individuals casting doubt, and we have parties and leaders trying to basically marginalise our community and other minority communities and do away with their votes."