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The “Uncommitted” Vote Campaign Pressured Democrats on Gaza. What’s Next?

Organizers offer an inside look at the hard-fought “Uncommitted” campaign to pressure Biden on Gaza.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators protest in Dearborn, Michigan, as President Joe Biden attends the NAACP Freedom Fund dinner in nearby Detroit on May 19, 2024.

During presidential primary elections this spring, a nationwide network of organizers under the banner of the Uncommitted movement rolled out a groundswell campaign across nine states urging participants to vote in protest of President Joe Biden’s role in the Gaza genocide. With November’s Trump-Biden rematch not yet an entirely foregone conclusion, the primaries offered an opportunity to send a message to elected officials. Uncommitted campaigners argued that instead of reflexively backing the presumptive Democratic candidate, the voting public, a majority of whom disapprove of the administration’s record on Gaza, should take the chance to register their distaste, aiming to motivate Biden to use the U.S.’s considerable influence on Israel to halt its attacks.

The organizers of Uncommitted campaigns cited both strategic and ethical arguments for the protest vote. The latter, in short, is that the Democratic establishment — which has been in many respects directly complicit with Israel’s perpetration of genocide — must not be rewarded for its involvement in a world-historical crime.

Now, at the conclusion of the primaries, it appears that the Uncommitted campaigners’ energies were well spent. After weeks of fevered organizing and turnout efforts, the “uncommitted” vote scored substantial percentages in multiple primaries, including 13 percent of the vote in Michigan.

Meanwhile, fissures are beginning to form in the elite liberal consensus on Gaza, in both Biden’s posture and in those of the lawmakers who follow his lead. In response to the uptick in uncommitted voters and dwindling poll numbers, Biden has unveiled promises to halt weapons and a ceasefire plan, as well as taking increasing care to rhetorically triangulate. The effectiveness and sincerity of these plans is another matter.

The U.S. public’s widespread disgust at the president’s complicity with the Israeli military’s murder of tens of thousands was already clear. Now, post-primary, thanks in no small part to the Uncommitted effort, an ultimatum has been resoundingly delivered to Biden and the Democrats: Their chances of reelection may depend upon whether they choose to go beyond lip service and actually exert substantial pressure (a move that is well within their power) to halt the slaughter in Palestine.

Lesser and Greater Evils

In the United States, where democratic means of redress for the average citizen are in rather short supply, the ballot box remains paramount as a rare point of leverage. Not that the nation suffers from “an excess of democracy” — the constrained choices of the two-party political system force left-leaning voters into the unenviable binary. The choice is between two parties that, despite their real differences, are ultimately incarnations of the same interests: the prerogatives of capital. In recent months, making the prospect more repugnant still, the ongoing murder of tens of thousands in Gaza has forced a reevaluation of the moral stakes.

Many on the left (and across the spectrum, for that matter) feel that Biden’s support of Israel, from diplomatic cover to weapons shipments, is ethically unacceptable. The Uncommitted campaign focused on the primary out of necessity: refusing to declare an allegiance to Biden in the November lead-up might be one of the few effective avenues for average people to put pressure on Biden to implement a ceasefire.

It would be wise for the Democrats to listen to the message instead of feeling entitled to votes; they often assume that Donald Trump and the contemporary right are such an abhorrent prospect that liberal candidates will be the de facto choice, especially for people of color. The Democrats’ millionaire contingent and high-paid consultants certainly reinforce the impression of out-of-touch entitlement.

In any case, in the uncontested primaries, the calculus was different, since as an incumbent, Biden was effectively locked in as the nominee. Nevertheless, the implications for November are clear. In what is sure to be a close race with Trump, another strong showing of uncommitted votes could be fatal to Biden. Until then, the state primaries offered something of a testbed, both for pressuring the administration on Gaza and for identifying and building a constituency pre-election.

Uncommitted campaigns in individual states, titled “Listen to Michigan,” “Listen to Wisconsin,” etc., grew to include campaigns of various sizes in Washington, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Mexico, Oregon, and elsewhere. After weeks of feverish organizing, the results of the early primaries, as well as Super Tuesday, indicated that the idea was catching on — with totals reaching as high as 19 percent in Minnesota, and a startling 29 percent in Hawaii. Across the country, as outrage over Gaza intensified, the concept continued to gain significant momentum. Those initial promising results — especially after 13 percent of voters in Michigan also marked “uncommitted” — made the potential impact clear, sparking last-minute efforts to replicate the result in upcoming primaries nationwide.

Interstate Collaborations and Widespread Successes

As one of the later primaries, New Jersey would not hold its vote until June 4. That left a few months, after the success in Michigan, for Uncommitted New Jersey to assemble. Fatima Mughal is an organizer with that campaign. Writing to Truthout, she described the origins of the Uncommitted NJ effort: “After seeing what Listen to Michigan was able to accomplish in their March primary, members of the three New Jersey chapters of DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) came together to discuss whether we wanted to attempt something similar in New Jersey. We knew that the rules in our state would make it challenging (although we didn’t realize how complicated it would be to even get Uncommitted onto the ballots) but we decided that it was definitely worth it.”

Michigan, of course, has a high population of Muslim Americans, Arab Americans and Palestinian Americans, among others, and their vote will be critical in deciding who wins the swing state. Perhaps lesser-known is that New Jersey has one of the top percentages of Muslim residents of any state in the U.S. Mughal continued, “We believe that, although NJ is not a swing state, and our primary is one of the last ones, New Jersey voters deserve the opportunity to send a message to Joe Biden to let him know how angry we are with what he is doing to the Palestinians…. We, along with our allies in the fight for Palestinian liberation, deserve the chance to register a protest vote.”

The criticism that volunteers of Uncommitted heard most often was that disavowing Biden amounted to aiding the Republicans. Of course, in an incumbent primary, with Biden’s nomination all but guaranteed, this charge makes little sense. Yet even in November, Mughal pointed out, “If anything, we are helping Biden, in that we are letting him know what he has to do to get reelected. He needs the Muslim vote, especially in Michigan, and he will absolutely not be getting it if he continues to fund a genocide with our tax dollars.”

Uncommitted has a national hub organization of loosely connected state organizers, and the disparate locals were eager to lend a hand to their counterparts’ efforts across the country. Not only did Listen to Michigan’s effort inspire Uncommitted NJ from afar, but the latter also sought their direct guidance: “We reached out [to Listen to Michigan organizers], and along with the Listen to Wisconsin campaign, [they] met with us to give some great advice and guidance for our campaign,” Mughal said.

There were, of course, local idiosyncrasies of policy and demographics that demanded strategic accommodation. “Trying to navigate what Uncommitted looks like in New Jersey came with a lot of challenges, including complicated election laws in New Jersey that other states did not have to deal with. We had to find community members in each district to apply as delegates with the Democratic party and then had to collect 100 signatures in every district. We needed to collect a total of 2,000 signatures and our members, along with community allies, were able to collect over 3,500 signatures in 10 days.”

There was a struggle to get the term “uncommitted” printed on the ballot, and to have the slogan “Justice for Palestine, Permanent Ceasefire Now” included — in New Jersey, Mughal explained, the campaign was ostensibly allowed to include a six-word phrase. Yet county clerks in charge of the ballot construction were far from sympathetic, and much bureaucratic back-and-forth took place. The organizers also faced major fundraising roadblocks due to campaign finance laws. “Again, we had to jump through hoops, so we started an email campaign to put pressure on the county clerks, and finally had to get the governor involved to be able to get assurance from the Head of New Jersey Division of Elections that every county would have the word Uncommitted in the same font and size as all the other options. It was so much work just making sure we got Uncommitted onto the ballots that we weren’t able to fully focus on spreading the word until about six weeks before our June 4 primary.”

Uncommitted NJ was able to enlist the help of allied organizations, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Action NJ and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) North Jersey, along with the NJ Muslim Civic Coalition. CAIR, Action NJ and JVP Action lent Uncommitted NJ real material support, “even holding their own phone banking and canvasses” for the effort, Mughal added. “We had an exciting virtual launch rally to officially introduce the campaign, which many community leaders spoke at, including Linda Sarsour. We are very grateful to the community that has come together to make this campaign successful.”

And Uncommitted NJ was a success indeed, with over 43,000 New Jerseyans, or 9 percent of primary voters, ultimately checking “uncommitted” on their ballots. As The New Jersey Monitor reported, “Former Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer, a vocal critic of the Biden administration’s policy on the war, said the vote total sends an unequivocal message that Democrats are dissatisfied.”

Results coming in across the country tallied similarly significant percentages. In Wisconsin, there were almost 50,000 votes marked uncommitted (or “uninstructed,” as it’s called there, a little bafflingly) — doubling the organizers’ goal of 23,000. That goal was established because, as reported in Jacobin, “That would have been a couple of thousand more than the 20,682 votes Biden won by in 2020 and a few hundred more than the 22,748 that Trump won by in 2016.” Needless to say, the fact that the primary’s protest votes outweighed Biden’s victory margin portends grim prospects for Biden in that state, should he fail to assuage voters’ anger over Gaza.

Historic Totals in Maryland

The Maryland primary concluded in May, and the result made it evident that Uncommitted organizers in that state were successful in encouraging turnout for a strong showing of their own. Ryan Harvey is one of the lead organizers with Listen to Maryland. On a call with Truthout, Harvey described the history of their efforts and the remarkable result.

With presidential primaries concluded and Biden’s nomination assured, Harvey and other Uncommitted organizers have had a chance to reflect on their work. Their message, he feels, was delivered effectively — but equally important is that a clear constituency has now been identified and linked. “We saw the campaign as both strategic nationally, and as a way to engage a lot of people that weren’t otherwise engaged with things locally,” Harvey said. “I think people were pretty impressed that we mobilized 400 volunteers, including 150 people to work the polls on Election Day.… It was almost all grassroots — the only national org that did a lot of legwork was Our Revolution. This was started by a group of us in Maryland, it was started locally, and it remained local.”

The result, with an ultimate total of 66,152 uncommitted votes cast in the May 14 primary, amounted to 9.8 percent of all primary voters. This number, as was the case in Michigan, Wisconsin, and elsewhere, exceeded expectations. For a few reasons, it’s a remarkable outcome. “The two big uncommitted votes in Maryland’s history,” Harvey noted, “at least according to records available, were after Obama’s first term after the financial crisis, [and after] Bill Clinton’s second term.” In those votes, around 37,000 and 20,000 uncommitted votes were tallied, respectively. In both, uncommitted votes made up a similar ratio, around 10 percent of those who voted, said Harvey.

But those past uncommitted votes, while still protests of a sort, were over domestic concerns — the 2008 market crash, and Bill Clinton’s scandals and signing of NAFTA. “What we just had,” said Harvey, “was a vote larger than those two put together — that was not about a domestic issue, about bread and butter issues. It was a foreign policy protest vote.”

This defies conventional logic about presidential elections. “George Bush got reelected in the middle of the Iraq War. Lyndon Johnson got [elected to another term] in the middle of Vietnam. But what we’re seeing right now is quite different. People really do not want the U.S. to be supporting the Israeli government in this genocide — and we also don’t want to be at war anymore!” Harvey said. “It’s not just rhetoric from antiwar activists. People, including people on the right, don’t want their money going to war, they don’t want their friends and family going to war, they don’t want to see this stuff happening and know that we’re doing it. They want themselves to be taken care of, they want their lives to be meaningful, and they want the future to look bright.”

Both in the Uncommitted vote tallies and in other polling, the public disapproval of complicity in the Gaza genocide has become too clear to ignore. However, despite the undeniable mark that the movement has left, quick conclusions cannot necessarily be drawn from the primary votes; as Harvey pointed out, there are numerous confounding variables. In some states, “uncommitted” is an option on the ballot, whereas in others, it must be written in. The total turnout numbers, of course, vary from state to state (in Hawaii, the stunning 29 percent uncommitted number becomes a bit less so when one accounts for the fact that the number comprises only about a thousand people.)

Michigan is also an outlier in that it holds its presidential primary as a separate election. However, if anything, that’s likely to decrease turnout. “In Maryland,” Harvey said, “we voted in the presidential primary at the same time as we voted in [several other local and national elections]. That skews the numbers. If Michigan was voting on all of that on the same day, maybe their uncommitted vote would have been even higher.” Given the large Muslim population of the swing state, that certainly seems plausible.

Regardless, there is ample statistically significant evidence of public opinion on the matter. Yet the sense of how the numbers might register with the Biden administration and Democratic strategists is not so transparent. Will the Uncommitted push stir them to intensify political pressure to end the war and rein in Israel’s grotesqueries?

An Ultimatum for Peace

Fortunately, there are signs that the dissent has been not only duly noted, but acted upon. With Biden having promised to halt weapons shipments if the IDF invaded Rafah, and now pushing a ceasefire and peace deal, it seems that he is at least hoping to telegraph the public impression that he wishes the war to end as swiftly as possible (Israel’s recalcitrance notwithstanding). So far, though, the sum of his efforts, genuine or otherwise, has been insufficient. After all, Biden’s declared “red line” of a Rafah invasion proved to be an empty feint: Biden pushed forward a $1 billion weapons transfer even as the invasion went forth.

Poll numbers have fallen precipitously for Biden as he sheds support in key swing-state constituencies, especially among Muslim and Arab Americans. This is in direct correlation to his actions after October 7 — namely, whitewashing, condoning and outright facilitating the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent people. The public has taken notice, and the Democrats’ best pollsters and strategic temperature-takers have in turn seen cause for alarm in their own slipping grasp on power. With the IDF reliant on procuring the products of the U.S. military complex, and, more broadly, on the State Department running diplomatic interference, Biden and the Democrats can exert immense power over the behavior of their client state. It’s merely that they have, until very recently, for self-interested purposes, chosen not to.

But now, having received the Uncommitted movement’s message that Gaza might well cost them the election, Biden is clearly moving to shore up what remains of his support. (The same effect also generalizes, trickling down to other Democratic lawmakers, many of whom are vulnerable to electoral challenges and are now scrambling to signal dissent as consensus opinion shifts.) Arab Center fellow Rami G. Khouri, writing in Al Jazeera, even sees “a measure of desperation” in the administration’s frantic late-game peace dealings as the war “destroy[s] their political prospects” — though any real “sincerity” in their efforts, as opposed to mere public posturing, “is hard to discern in the current offering.”

The Uncommitted movement now has the opportunity to pause, if only for a moment, both for a much-needed rest and to weigh next steps. For some branches, that might be a shift to focusing on the upcoming Democratic National Convention beginning on August 19; for others, it could mean the redirection of movement energies into divestment or congressional pressure campaigns. Harvey spoke to the considerable potential energy that has accumulated. After first making clear that he spoke for himself, not necessarily Listen to Maryland, he reflected, “For me, [the idea of] ‘uncommitted’ was a thing that was relevant during the primary — but what’s relevant now is that we have a bunch of people in Maryland who we’re in touch with, who are engaged.… I think we need to be thinking about: What do we do with the influence we have, and the trust we’ve built with these people? How do we direct that energy to something else that’s going to be really impactful? And it could be something completely different.” Uncommitted organizers might very well undertake such a pivot.

Fatima Mughal has had all too many reminders of what her and her fellow organizers were fighting for. During the lead-up to the primary, Uncommitted organizers, she said, “work[ed] alongside our Palestinian community members, many of whom have lost dozens of relatives in the last eight months. When we went to my local mosque to canvass on the first Friday of Ramadan, I met a local educator, Abdulbaset. … That morning an Israeli airstrike killed [his nephew] and injured his family that was sheltering with him. Abdulbaset has now lost more than 40 family members since October.”

The unthinkable cruelties that issue daily from Gaza serve to reassert the stakes of the circumstances — circumstances over which U.S. elected officials have real and considerable influence. If they cannot be spurred to take action on moral grounds, then a threat to power and influence will have to do. For Uncommitted campaigners, if halting the murderous attacks on Gaza must be accomplished by not only empathy and human rights, but by leveraging the selfish interests of the liberal power elite, then so be it.

“[Abdulbaset’s] story was a sobering reminder of why this campaign, and the larger fight for justice for Palestine, is so important,” Fatima wrote to Truthout. “It’s not some conflict happening far away, it is our community, our families, that are being killed in this genocide. I can’t imagine the pain and horror of our Palestinian brothers and sisters who have to live with the fact that their taxes pay for the bombs that are killing their family members.”

The Uncommitted campaign has built a real coalition. No matter what course the movement’s energies take, it’s clear that it will not relent in pressuring the state to end the murderous IDF attack on Gaza, threatening their grasp on power wherever necessary. If the hearts of the lawmakers who have helped facilitate the genocide in Gaza cannot be won, then at least, their hands must be stayed.

“When we were canvassing at mosques for the Uncommitted campaign, we heard over and over from people that they were either staying home this election or have already changed their party affiliation, because Biden and the rest of the Democrats refuse to stand up for what’s right and represent their constituents,” said Mughal. “After all, 70% of Democrats wanted a ceasefire back in December. Imagine if Biden had actually listened to his constituency, how many thousands of lives would have been saved. If he continues on this path, he will lose the election and have no one to blame but himself.”

Note: An update was made to clarify that it was specifically the 501(c)(4) known as JVP Action (rather than JVP more generally) that gave Uncommitted NJ material support.

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