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“Uncommitted” Movement Reaches New York as Democratic Voters Cast Blank Ballots

Participants in New York’s “Leave It Blank” campaign aim to pressure President Biden to push for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Simrand Thind holds a "Leave it Blank" flyer outside of Masjid Al Abidin mosque on March 29, 2024, in Queens, New York.

Voters head to the polls today in several states for the U.S. presidential primaries, including New York, where a growing campaign is hoping that many people will submit blank ballots in the state’s Democratic presidential primary to protest Joe Biden’s continued support for Israel’s months-long assault on Gaza.

Leave It Blank” is a statewide effort, backed by dozens of grassroots organizations, that is bringing the national “uncommitted” movement — aimed at pressuring Biden — to New York State. The campaign came together barely a month ago but has quickly gained momentum as dozens of organizers have phone banked, canvassed and shared information over social media. Unlike many other states, New York does not let primary voters choose an “uncommitted” vote or offer a write-in, so the Leave It Blank campaign has been urging voters to submit a blank ballot as a protest vote.

Today’s primary election comes as over 33,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s war on Gaza, with many thousands more feared dead under the rubble of the bombings, and with much of Gaza on the brink of famine. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported last week that the Biden administration, despite voicing concern over Israel’s conduct of the war, has “quietly authorized the transfer of billions of dollars in bombs and fighter jets” to Israel.

“Through the Leave It Blank campaign we are sending a clear message to the Biden administration: New Yorkers refuse to be complicit in genocide,” Sumaya Awad, a Palestinian organizer with the Leave It Blank campaign and a member of New York City Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), told Truthout. She added that the blank ballots should be understood as urging Biden to “change course and support a permanent ceasefire and end U.S. funding for genocide or lose votes in the election.”

The Origins of the “Leave It Blank” Campaign

New York’s Leave It Blank campaign was inspired by the growing “uncommitted” protest vote movement that has spread across the U.S.

From Minnesota and Hawai’i to Colorado and North Carolina, voters have been selecting or writing in variants of “uncommitted” or “no preference” to register their opposition to President Joe Biden’s ongoing support for Israel’s war on Gaza. New York organizers cite the example of Michigan in particular, where a grassroots effort driven by Arab, Muslim and Palestinian voters in Dearborn, Dearborn Heights and Hamtramck cast 13.2 percent of all Democratic ballots — over 100,000 votes — for “uncommitted.”

The New York State primary ballot does not have “uncommitted” or “write-in” options, but by urging voters to submit a blank ballot in the Democratic primary election, the Leave It Blank campaign is hoping to replicate the same kind of protest vote in the Empire State. A similar effort occurred in Georgia’s Democratic presidential primary.

In bringing this national movement to New York, a powerhouse state with a deep blue voter base, organizers are hoping to send a resounding message to Biden in one of the strongholds for the Democratic Party. “People want to show that they are against the genocide,” Hesham El-Meligy, a co-founder of Leave It Blank NY, told Truthout. “It’s a continuation of what’s happening in other states.”

For Awad, the rationale behind the campaign is clear: the Biden administration can halt the death and destruction in Gaza if it chooses to do so. “The U.S. government has the power to stop the genocide and end the mass killing and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians,” she said. “Instead, the Biden administration has gone out of its way to support and enable Israel’s genocide politically, diplomatically and financially.”

In just around a month, the Leave It Blank campaign has knitted together a range of groups across the state in common cause. El-Meligy told Truthout that organizers from Buffalo and Syracuse to New York City “were thinking along the same lines separately” and joined forces in early March to form a statewide campaign. “The campaign evolved amazingly fast,” he said, “and all are working like a beehive to organize the various aspects of this campaign.”

Leslie Cagan, a longtime social justice organizer representing the Jewish Elders Affinity Group in the Leave It Blank effort, says submitting a blank ballot on April 2 is a clear way for voters to express their opposition to Biden’s Israel policy. “We’re doing this because we are horrified that our government continues to support the Israeli government,” she told Truthout. “We need to send a clear message to Biden now that this has to end.”

By submitting blank ballots as a form of protest, says El-Meligy, voters can hold Biden accountable and send a warning about the upcoming presidential election. “If even in New York, one of the bluest of the blue states, if there’s a strong show of a rebuke to the Biden administration’s policy, we’ll send a message that they need to change course,” he said. “Otherwise, it will affect them in the general election.”

From New York City to Buffalo

The Leave It Blank campaign has quickly assembled a broad coalition of Palestinian, Muslim and Jewish organizations and a host of progressive, peace, labor and socialist groups. Thirty organizations — from Jewish Voice for Peace Action to DRUM Beats, New York Progressive Action Network to NYC Educators For Palestine, and MPower Action to Peace Action New York State — are listed as campaign cosponsors on the Leave It Blank website.

“The evolution of this campaign was organic and very fast,” said El-Meligy.

In recent days, the campaign gained further momentum with an endorsement from the New York Working Families Party. Eight elected officials including four New York City Councilmembers, State Sen. Jabari Brisport, and State Assemblymembers Phara Souffrant Forrest, Marcela Mitaynes and Zohran Mamdani, released a video backing the campaign. New York City Councilmember Alexa Aviles has urged voters to “[l]eave your primary ballot blank to send a message to Pres. Biden that we do not support the genocide of Palestinians.”

And while New York City casts a dominating influence over the whole state, the geographical breadth of the campaign is seen in other regions, including Western New York.

Buffalo, New York’s second-largest city, has been no stranger to protest and insurgency over the past few years. This is the place that birthed the historic Starbucks union drive and the India Walton mayoral campaign that nearly upended the local Democratic Party establishment.

In early March, inspired by the “uncommitted” turnout in Michigan, members of the Buffalo chapter of the DSA wanted to bring the protest vote tactic to Western New York. “This was a campaign that just made sense for us,” Solomon Brown, co-chair of the Buffalo DSA, told Truthout. “It got a lot of people in our chapter really energized and raring to go.”

On March 6, the Buffalo DSA announced an effort to “Blank Biden” — urging “members and concerned voters to leave your ballot BLANK on 4/2” — as a way, said Brown, to “put pressure on Biden and show that we are extremely unhappy with his complete complicity in this genocide.”

The group reached out to fellow DSA chapters across the state, including in nearby Rochester, and learned that organizers in New York City were starting the Leave It Blank campaign. “We just figured, why not coalesce and come together?” said Brown. Seven DSA chapters across New York, including Buffalo, are co-sponsors of the statewide Leave It Blank effort.

For the past few weeks, campaign organizers in Buffalo have spoken at community meetings and joined in a statewide phone banking effort. Others like Our City Action Buffalo (OCAB), a progressive grassroots group, have endorsed the Leave It Blank campaign and joined in canvassing efforts across the city.

“The goal here is to send the Biden administration a clear message from individual voters and from the city as a whole,” Jillian Nowak, an OCAB board member, told Truthout. “We’re demanding a permanent ceasefire now.”

Ultimately, says Brown, this campaign is about pulling people together across the city and state to send the Biden administration a message. “Biden has the power to stop this,” he said, “and if he has any serious desire to be reelected, he better start listening, otherwise he will lose.”

“It’s All People Power”

The Leave It Blank campaign has quickly gained momentum, even in the face of some challenges. For one, unlike many other states, voters cannot select or write in variants of “uncommitted” on the New York ballot. Campaign organizers have been working tirelessly — making phone calls, giving speeches, handing out flyers, knocking on doors, posting on social media — to spread the word to submit a blank ballot.

Moreover, while blank ballots for the Democratic presidential primary are counted in the certified results, City & State reports that state election officials do not announce blank ballots with the unofficial results on the night of the presidential primary election because they don’t impact the allocation of delegates. Gothamist reports that the Leave It Blank campaign is threatening litigation against the New York State Board of Elections if it fails to “report the sum total number of votes cast, including Blanks, in its unofficial election night reporting.”

Still, El-Meligy says the campaign has been “spreading like fire,” and he sees a silver lining in submitting “blank” on a ballot solely for the presidential primary. It “makes it even more powerful,” he says, “because voters know they have no one on the ballot to vote for, but they still went to vote to intentionally leave it blank.”

With minimal resources and less than a month to build the campaign, Leave It Blank has reached thousands of people and added a new dynamic into the primary election. “We’re getting a lot of people, and we’re doing this whole project in really just weeks,” says Cagan. “It’s all people power” and “grassroots organizations,” she says.

Leave It Blank organizers are optimistic about the impact of the campaign. “We’ve heard from so many people that they support the campaign and will leave their ballots blank,” said El-Meligy. “It seems we struck a nerve and will have a good result.” He says that blank ballots are usually around 1 percent, so “anything above that is a testament to our success.”

While organizers are hoping for a strong turnout of blank ballot voters, they stress that the Leave It Blank campaign is just one part of a larger, ongoing effort.

“Leave It Blank and the Uncommitted campaign more generally complement the various strategies and tools being used to pressure our government to end their support for genocide,” Awad told Truthout. “Every tool at our disposal must be utilized, from electoral to labor, from Congress to the streets.”

Cagan echoes this view. “Everything that we can do, every action that we can take, adds to the pressure on the Biden administration to change its policy toward Israel and end this genocide,” she said. “There’s no one action that’s going to turn the tide, but leaving your ballot blank on April 2 will add to the mounting pressure on the Biden administration, and that’s what we need to do.”

Note: Sharon Zhang contributed reporting for this article.

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