How the uncommitted vote against Biden’s Gaza policy is going ‘national’

After expectation-busting showings in US states like Michigan and Minnesota, organisers outline plans for the months ahead.

A protester interrupts US President Joe Biden during an event in Manassas, Virginia [Alex Brandon/AP]By Joseph StepanskyPublished On 18 Mar 202418 Mar 2024

Washington, DC – The organisers of Listen to Michigan — an effort to protest Joe Biden’s policy towards Israel’s war in Gaza — have a message for the United States president: The conflict is not a “niche” issue for only some segments of the political left.

Listen to Michigan emerged earlier this year as a grassroots movement focused on the state’s primary. It called on voters to cast “uncommitted votes” instead of backing Biden’s reelection effort, in an attempt to signal displeasure over the president’s stance on the war.

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But that movement has kicked off a domino effect in other key states, with similar “protest votes” emerging. On Monday, Listen to Michigan unveiled plans to take its campaign to the national stage.

“Since we launched our campaign in Michigan, critics have gone out of their way to minimise the momentum of ‘uncommitted’ and Listen to Michigan and what this movement has gained as a niche issue of the left,” Layla Elabed, a key Michigan organiser, said during a news conference on Monday.

“Today, we launched our national movement to let you all know uncommitted voters aren’t going anywhere, and we aren’t backing down until we achieve a permanent ceasefire.”

Organisers said the announcement serves to dispel perceptions that Listen to Michigan was a one-off phenomenon, only applicable to the state where it was founded.

They hope to mobilise voters in other state primaries, to send a strong message before the general election that the war is unacceptable.

A movement born in Michigan

Michigan, itself a key battleground state, is home to large Arab and Muslim populations that have become increasingly politically engaged in recent years.

But the war in Gaza has been a particularly galvanising issue. The death toll in the Palestinian enclave has spiralled to more than 31,700, as Israel continues its months-long bombardment and siege.

United Nations experts have warned that parts of Gaza are on the brink of famine. Still, the Biden administration and other top Washington officials have pledged steadfast support to Israel, despite the human rights concerns its military actions have prompted.

The Listen to Michigan campaign aimed to muster 10,000 “uncommitted” votes in protest of Biden’s support for Israel. Instead, on February 27, Michigan saw 101,000 ballots cast for “uncommitted” in the Democratic primary — smashing the organisers’ goals. “Uncommitted” accounted for 13 percent of the total vote.

But as primary elections continued in other states, some organisers were sceptical that Michigan’s success could be replicated elsewhere. Would the protest spread beyond Arab and Muslim communities?

The Minnesota primary on March 5 offered an answer. There, a whopping 19 percent of Democratic primary voters — approximately 46,000 people — chose “uncommitted” in the state’s primary.

Activists in the state said the “uncommitted” turnout was all the more impressive because of how little time they had to organise: It was an eight-day, mad-dash effort.

Other states — notably Hawaii, Washington, North Carolina and Massachusetts — have also shown promising turnouts. Write-in and ballot-spoiling efforts have even sprouted in states that do not have an “uncommitted” option.

Michigan organiser Lexi Zeidan estimated that more than half a million “uncommitted” votes have been cast nationwide so far, though it is not possible to determine how many were in protest of Biden’s Gaza policy.

“Michigan led with courage that has inspired the uncommitted movement coast to coast with over 500,000 uncommitted voters,” Zeidan said at Monday’s news conference.

She warned that opposition to the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, will not be enough to rally Democrats to Biden’s side.

“As we launch the Uncommitted National Movement, we send yet another resounding message that this pressure will continue to be sustained, that you cannot weaponise fear of Trump against the very real actions of Biden.”

Eyes on Wisconsin, DNC

The Uncommitted National Movement will remain focused on the primary season, which runs until the Democratic National Convention in August.

It has also sought to distinguish itself from the Abandon Biden campaign, another grassroots effort to reject the incumbent president’s support for Israel.

Unlike the Abandon Biden campaign — which has pledged to boycott the president in the general election as well — organisers for the Uncommitted National Movement said they have not ruled out eventually supporting Biden.

“Once [Biden] has called for a permanent ceasefire, then we can talk about November,” said Abbas Alawieh, a Michigan organiser and former Congressional staffer.

“Until then, the level of pain that our community is experiencing is so excruciating that it is inappropriate to come and ask us for our votes in November while the blood is still being shed,” he said. “Stop funding the killing, then we can talk about November.”

In the meantime, the Uncommitted National Movement is focusing on the April 2 primary in Wisconsin, another Midwestern state that will be key to Biden’s reelection campaign.

Biden beat Trump in Wisconsin by just 20,682 votes in 2020, one of the slightest margins of any state. Organisers believe a strong “uncommitted” showing could be another resounding example of Biden’s vulnerability in Midwestern swing states.

“As a Palestinian American, a longtime organiser in Milwaukee, and as the former digital organising director of Biden’s 2020 Wisconsin campaign, I led the way for Biden’s victory when he won here by only 20,000 votes,” Heba Mohammad, a spokesperson for Listen to Wisconsin, told reporters.

“As people of conscience and pro-democracy, pro-peace, pro-justice voters, we are going to use this primary to call for an end to the genocide right now.”

A ‘real’ electoral problem

The national “uncommitted” campaign is also seeking to leverage its influence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

So far, uncommitted votes will be represented at the convention by a total of 20 delegates: 11 delegates from Minnesota, seven from Hawaii and two from Michigan.

Those delegates were won in the state primary votes. Ultimately, the candidate with the most delegates from the state primaries receives their party’s nomination at the convention.

There are about 3,900 delegates available, and Biden has already broken the threshold of 1,968 needed to be named the party’s presidential nominee.

Nevertheless, Alawieh said the movement is working with state-level leadership for the Democratic Party to ensure that the “uncommitted” delegates can represent their message at the convention.

“Our intention is to coalesce and be in a coalition and community come August so that we speak with one loud, antiwar voice,” he said.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, DC, said that any delegates representing the movement will be largely symbolic, as they will likely be constrained by the convention’s tight rules.

That means it will be difficult for them to introduce any positions or to take the stage at the Democratic convention without first gaining wider support from other delegates. Large swathes of the party remain staunchly pro-Israel, although there has been some softening in recent months.

Still, Zogby said the “uncommitted” movement has exposed real vulnerability in Biden’s campaign.

“Uncommitted” votes in Michigan and Minnesota surpassed the margin of victory in those states in recent presidential races. Polls currently show a close race between Biden and Trump, with just a handful of states likely to make the difference.

The situation is indicative of a larger problem for the Democratic Party, Zogby added, saying it had pivoted away from “bread-and-butter, household and community-based issues”.

“We are losing — as we see in the polls — a percentage of Black, Latino, Asian and young voters because of Gaza,” he said, “and because they have other issues that we’re not addressing”.

“If you lose two-thirds of the Arab vote, that’s one thing. That’ll only kill you in Michigan,” Zogby added. “But you lose 5, 10 percent of these minority voters or young voters nationally, then you’re dead in the water.”

Source: Al Jazeera