The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Florida mosque is removed as a polling site after complaints and threats

(AP Photo/Terry Spencer)
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For years, the Islamic Center of Boca Raton, Fla., served as a polling station for Palm Beach County voters.

Since at least the year 2010, citizens have cast their votes within the pastel green walls of the mosque, whether it was for a presidential primary, a municipal election or a special primary.

Last week, however, the mosque was removed as a polling site.

The decision was made by Susan Bucher, Supervisor of Elections for Palm Beach County, after she received complaints, and threats, about the use of the mosque in the upcoming Florida primary in August and general election in November. Bucher, a Democrat, is running for re-election for the nonpartisan supervisor post.

“We began receiving complaints from voters,” said Bucher in an email to The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board. “Some felt uncomfortable voting at the Islamic Center.”

She had received a call “that indicated individuals planned to impede voting and maybe even call in a bomb threat to have the location evacuated on Election Day,” Bucher said, and she decided to relocate the polling place to the Spanish River Library about two miles away. 

Bassem Alhalabi, the president of the Islamic Center, said he was saddened to learn the news. “We were very happy to serve the community,” he told WPTV.

The Islamic Center, Alhalabi said, is “a true community center” that serves as a hurricane shelter, feeds the homeless and works with the juvenile justice department.

Alhalabi, a professor of computer science and engineering at Florida Atlantic University, said he was especially shocked by Bucher’s decision because he himself votes at a church.

“This is not democratic,” he told the the Sun Sentinel. “If Muslims are good to vote in a church and a synagogue, then Christian and Jews are also good to vote in an Islamic center.”

On Monday, the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement condemning the “Islamophobic backlash” and calling for the mosque to be restored as a polling place.

“The supervisor of elections is evidently targeted by an organized lobbying campaign spreading fear and Islamophobia. Her discretion to designate or remove polling sites must never be based on religious, racial or ethnic bias,” Laila Abdelaziz, CAIR-Florida legislative and government affairs director, said in the statement. “This apparent unconstitutional religious bias may need to be corrected by our courts.”

Abdelaziz called the removal of the mosque as a polling place an “openly discriminatory decision affecting the federally protected rights of the Palm Beach County voters.”

Bucher’s decision to drop the mosque as a polling place has also drawn criticism from two U.S. Democratic representatives, Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel.

“The right to religious freedom and the right to vote are both fundamental to our democracy,” said Frankel in a statement. “All polling places should be safe, without discrimination against any religion.”

“If we are going to use places of worship as polling places, we should not discriminate. When Donald Trump talks about a religious ban on Muslims, there is a dangerous impact on communities throughout this country,” Deutch said.

The editorial board of the Palm Beach Post, while sympathetic to the Bucher’s “uncomfortable position” and the “difficult decision” she had to make, called the abandoning of the mosque as a polling place “de facto discrimination.”

“We shouldn’t have to cower before threats from faceless bigots,” read the editorial. By moving the polling place to another location, she had “given in to . . . fearmongering.” 

By contrast, the Florida Family Association praised Bucher’s decision and urged voters to send her an email to thank her for changing the polling location.

The association, whose slogan is “defending American values,” argued that using the mosque as a polling place would hurt voter turnout, which would be “unfair to voters and people seeking office.”

The Palm Beach Post’s editorial, however, pointed out that Palm Beach County voters have long cast their ballots in churches and synagogues, and that dropping the mosque as a polling place is contrary to the Constitution’s First Amendment by essentially relegating Islam to a second-class religion.