A south Florida Islamic center was looking forward to joining the almost 100 churches and synagogues that serve as polling sites for Palm Beach County in November. 2016 was the first year that the Islamic Center of Boca Raton had been invited to process voters, and officials at the center started preparing soon after the county elections supervisor first reached out to them in April. They planned to serve desserts and snacks and set out chairs for older voters waiting in line.
Then, out of the blue, the center’s president received a call from a reporter in early July asking how he felt about Palm Beach County Election Supervisor Susan Bucher’s decision to relocate the polling site.
“I said, ‘who told you that?’” Bassem Alhalabi told TPM in a Tuesday phone interview. “He said, ‘That’s what I heard.’ So it was a rumor in the air which meant to me that the news leaked out before it was official.”
The mosque leader’s account of being blindsided by that news doesn’t match up with the county elections supervisor’s public comments on the relocation.
Alhalabi told TPM he was “very upset” and reached out to Bucher to ask what had changed.
“She said, ‘Well, that is unfortunately true. We’re going to have to remove it,’” Alhalabi said. “And I said, ‘No no no, don’t do this. I asked, ‘Why didn’t you discuss this with me?’ She said, ‘Well I intended not to have it in the media, spread into the media. I wanted it to be confidential.’”
By Alhalabi’s account, Bucher told him what she would later tell the press in a statement: That her office began receiving complaints and anonymous calls from local residents who “felt uncomfortable voting at the Islamic Center.” Some threatened to interrupt proceedings on Election Day and even to call in a bomb threat that would force the mosque to be evacuated as votes were being cast.
Following his call to Bucher, other media outlets asked for Alhalabi’s reaction to the polling site being relocated, even though it hadn’t been announced officially, he said. A July 7 Miami Herald article noted that the Islamic Center was still listed as a polling site at press time.
Alhalabi said he called Bucher again to tell her the news had already leaked and ask her how he should respond. He said Bucher told him she didn’t know how reporters had learned about the decision.
That timeline contradicts the statement from Bucher’s office, in which she suggested she reached out to Alhalabi to explain the situation.
“We located the Spanish River Library which is 2 miles away from the center as an alternate voting location and I called the Center’s President,” Bucher said in the statement provided to TPM. “I expressed my deepest apology to the President and his members and explained that my responsibility as the supervisor was to open 445 polling locations on Election Day that were adequate and accessible to the voters in accordance with F.S. 101.71 and I was not in a position to address world political issues. My responsibility is to conduct elections.”
Bucher’s office did not immediately respond Tuesday to TPM’s request for comment on Alhalabi’s version of events. The July 13 statement is her only public comment on the controversy to date.
Alhalabi said that the center is now “trying to convince her to reverse her decision.” He said mosque officials have received an outpouring of support from local clergy and civil rights groups, while Boca Raton’s two U.S. representatives, Democrats Lois Frankel and Ted Deutch, have also condemned the elections supervisor’s decision. Bucher was herself a Democratic legislator who built up a reputation as a fierce defender of progressive causes during her years in the Florida state House.
While he said he understood Bucher’s concern for voters’ safety, Alhalabi said he thought anonymous, intimidating phone calls were thin ground for singling out his mosque. He argued that if people were issuing threats, Bucher should inform authorities rather than punish officials at the center who want to host voters.
“She is surrendering to bigotry,” he told TPM. “That’s all it is and that’s wrong. I understand her logic, which is that she received some bad phone calls and her job is to find a location for everyone. That’s her thinking. But the answer is not to move it from the Islamic Center. Moving it from ICBR is surrendering.”