Nausheena Hussain sits at her desk at the Capitol in advance of performing her duties as a presidential elector. Credit: Courtesy Nausheena Hussain

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In most presidential election years, the convening of the Electoral College—that is, the people who formally cast each state’s electoral votes—is a behind-the-scenes affair. A formality, really. This year, with an incumbent president pretending the race he lost is not yet over, more eyes than ever tuned in to follow the process. 

Some of those eyes watched a livestream of Minnesota elector Nausheena Hussain. She ran for her elector position so she could understand the process better—and make it more accessible to others, too.

Nausheena never really thought about the Electoral College, one of the stranger aspects of the American presidential elections, until 2016, when Hillary Clinton lost the election despite winning nearly 3 million votes more than Donald J. Trump. This year, when the opportunity opened up, she decided to pursue it to learn more about the process. Winning the spot required a miniature online campaign. She shot a video explaining her work mobilizing Muslim voters and her investment in making government work for everyone. 

She lost the race to represent her Congressional district slot in the Electoral College, but won one of the state’s two at-large seats. Her thought at the time? “This is such a controversial, fascinating aspect of our government. Let’s understand it so we can explain it back into our respective communities.”

Making government processes more transparent and accessible to the public is not new to Nausheena. The Brooklyn Park resident is executive director of Reviving Sisterhood, a group dedicated to amplifying the voices and civic power of Muslim women. She served on Brooklyn Park’s charter commission, and now holds a seat on the city’s human rights commission. 

Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment hosted the constitutional milestone Monday on its Facebook page. As Nausheena performed her electoral duty, Imam Asad Zaman and Asma Nizami, the organization’s advocacy director, explained her actions to viewers. Comments poured in.

“MashaAllah! So exciting,” wrote one viewer.

“Thank you for inviting us in to this event,” wrote Minnesota State Auditor Julie Blaha. “A close-up view of one elector’s experience is a good reminder of how personal democracy is to all of us.”

Nausheena has encouraged Muslim women to attend their party caucuses and has introduced them to their legislators at the state Capitol. By making the processes accessible, and showing people how someone like them can be involved, she hopes to make democracy more representative.

“When we get involved, we understand the process, and we understand how we are able to collectively influence decisions and make decisions of who represents us,” Nausheena said.

Planning for prayer time, halal meals, and a special Qur’an

In most democracies, the candidate who receives the most total votes wins the presidency. Not so in the United States. When voters cast a ballot, they are not voting directly for president—they are selecting a slate of electors loyal to their party’s candidate who will cast the final votes to select the president.

The process for certifying electoral college votes is laid out in federal law: Electors meet the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. But in Minnesota, the process actually starts the day before, when electors present themselves to the governor and confirm they are ready to fulfill their duty. 

Minnesota appoints 10 electors: two at-large for the entire state (this category includes Nausheena), and one for each of the state’s eight Congressional districts. Since many electors come from outside the Twin Cities, the whole group stayed overnight Sunday in a hotel so they could be transported securely to the Capitol the next day.

The time commitment meant Nausheena needed to plan for prayer time and meals that fit her religious dietary restrictions. She was touched by how helpful and welcoming everyone was to make sure her needs were met.

“The person who was organizing behind the scenes knew exactly what time my afternoon prayer was,” she said. “That really stopped me in my tracks. It just touched my heart. I can’t explain it in words. You know, we do belong here.”

For the swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol, Nausheena brought a special Qur’an. Though the ceremony didn’t require her to take her oath on a holy book, she kept it close at hand. It’s the same Qur’an that Ilhan Omar used when she took the oath of office to join the state legislature in 2017. 

The eight Muslims who had previously held public office in Minnesota at that time signed the Qur’an for Ilhan to use for her oath, Imam Zaman told the audience on Monday’s livestream. In the past four years, another seven Muslims—a park board member, several state representatives, school board members, a member of the Met Council, and now a member of the electoral college—have also used this Qur’an.

“I hope personally that one day a Muslim will get elected to governor, or president of America, and will take their oath of office on this Qur’an, the Qur’an that dozens and dozens of Muslims before them have sworn their oath of office on,” Zaman said.

The ceremony was short enough that Nausheena didn’t need the prayer accommodations she’d been offered. When Secretary of State Steve Simon called her name to read her vote, she grabbed her microphone and accidentally knocked her name tag off the desk.

“It was so nerve-wracking,” she said. “I got so flustered.”

But she recited the names of Minnesota’s choices for president and vice president clearly: Joseph R. Biden and Kamala Harris. It was one of 306 Electoral College votes nationwide for the winning ticket; another 232 votes went to Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

Representation at the local and national levels

Watching Nausheena cast her vote was an emotional experience for Anjuli Cameron, who works for the state’s Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans.

“Now she’s a part of this moment in history,” Cameron said. “And because of all that she represents, being a woman of color, being a South Asian woman, being a Muslim woman, now so many other people see themselves as part of this process that up until now has been inaccessible.”

For Cameron, it felt particularly meaningful to watch Nausheena cast her vote for Vice President–elect Harris, whose mother immigrated to the United States from India. Cameron and Nausheena, too, are the daughters of Indian immigrants.

“Even as we see doors opening at the national level, we’re seeing them open in our local community as well,” Cameron said. “It feels systemic to see this kind of shift. It feels very meaningful.”

Harris’s elevation as the country’s first female vice president—and the first of multiracial South Asian descent—feels significant to Nausheena, too. 

“When they show pictures of her childhood, she’s this little girl. Her mom is standing there in a sari,” Nausheena said. “That’s how my childhood pictures are.”

Still, she’s disappointed it took the United States this long to elect a woman to the highest levels of government; in India, where her parents were born, the first woman prime minister (Indira Gandhi) took office in 1966.

In advance of performing her role, she traced the history of the Electoral College. At the time of its inception more than 200 years ago, only white men who owned property could vote. Now, the American electorate is almost 100 times larger—and much more diverse.

She’s gratified that she was able to help Minnesota’s South Asians and Muslims feel represented in the Electoral College. 

People are telling her that “when we see somebody like you going in there and representing us, it gives us hope that we’re going to change these systems of power so they are more equitable,” Nausheena said. 

She hopes that more and more people from different backgrounds will feel like they, too, can find a home in the democratic process.

“I’m getting these messages, you’re inspiring me to be more involved,” she said. “And that’s what I want.”

Becky Z. Dernbach

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.