Palestinian advocates want Michigan voters to pick 'uncommitted,' not Biden

ByGabriella Abdul-Hakim, Libby Cathey and Fritz Farrow ABCNews logo
Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Just outside of Detroit in Hamtramck, Michigan, a group of about 100 people mainly from the Muslim and Arab communities gathered on Sunday in a small park outside of an early polling location loudly chanting "free, free, Palestine."

They were hoping to persuade voters -- and make sure President Joe Biden heard them, too.

"In a democracy you are told when things are not going right, you use the ballot box to send your message," said Michigan state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who joined the protesters.

Aiyash is one of the most well-known local politicians backing the "Listen to Michigan" campaign, which hopes to harness a quirk of the state's ballot to send a message to the White House that Biden should change his policies on the Israel-Hamas war.

Organizers are urging voters to choose "uncommitted" -- a kind of "none of the above" option -- on their ballots for Tuesday's Democratic primary.

They're betting that if enough people do, the margin could shift Biden's politics so as not to risk losing the state, which has evolved in recent elections into a closely fought battleground.

Biden narrowly won Michigan in 2020 by some 150,000 votes -- less than half of the amount of people in the state who cited Middle Eastern or North African ancestry in the 2020 census.

Wayne County, home to Dearborn and Detroit and a Democratic stronghold, has the largest percentage population of Middle Eastern or North African descent of any county in the country. So uncommitted supporters hope to have a major showing on Tuesday and signal that Biden's stance on Israel could have consequences in November's general election.

"We all have a voting bloc, we all have political power that we can leverage right now to vote uncommitted," Listen to Michigan campaign manager Layla Elabed told ABC News.

Broadly speaking, Biden has tried to balance his support for Israel's campaign against Hamas fighters after an Oct. 7 terror attack with sympathy for the tens of thousands of people who have been killed amid Israel's bombardment of the Palestinian territory of Gaza.

The president has also pushed for negotiations to implement temporary cease-fires in exchange for hostage releases and criticized Israel's tactics as "over the top." But he has not said he would condition aid to the country on an end to Israel's retaliation or on negotiations with the Palestinians, and he has been criticized in the past for some of his rhetoric about the death toll.

His critics, including among Arab and Muslim Americans, accuse him of being indifferent to their suffering and what they contend is Israel's brutal military operation, which the White House says isn't true. (Israel insists it takes steps to curb civilian deaths.)

The president has privately met with some advocates. He has also become increasingly vocal about his disagreements with Israel's strategy.

Biden "is working hard to earn every vote in Michigan," a campaign spokesperson said, in part, adding, "And, he is working tirelessly to create a just, lasting peace in the Middle East."

On Monday in New York City, Biden told reporters that he was optimistic about another temporary cease-fire tied to a hostage deal: "My hope is by next Monday," he said.

But skeptics like those in Listen to Michigan aren't convinced of his intentions.

The group, largely relying on grassroots efforts like phone banking and small rallies, has mainly utilized word of mouth to spread their message about uncommitted votes, picking up some notable endorsements along the way.

They hope at least 10,000 people will vote uncommitted on Tuesday, a nod to Trump's 10,700-vote victory margin in 2016 -- though still less than what the uncommitted option has gotten in the last three Democratic primaries.

More optimistically, some supporters would like to see them hit 15% of the total primary vote. At least some delegates at the Democratic National Convention this summer wouldn't be pledged to Biden if the uncommitted option hits that threshold -- which would give Listen to Michigan a better chance to have their platform heard come August.

Along with Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is Elabed's sister, endorsed the effort in a video posted on X and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke told the news outlet Michigan Advance last week that he agrees with their "aims" and "goals."

However, upon reaching out to O'Rourke, he told ABC News in a statement that he fully plans to support Biden for reelection.

How big will the movement be?

While Biden's victory in Tuesday's primary is all but assured, considering he faces no major challengers and has easily won the other races so far, the results will be closely watched for how big -- or small -- the uncommitted vote turns out to be.

More than 1 million people voted in each of the last two Democratic primaries in Michigan, so a 15% goal would be at least 150,000 people while 10,000 votes would be 1%.

Listen to Michigan events so far have, according to some attendees, struggled to breakthrough.

At the recent rally in Hamtramck, a speaker told the crowd: "I blame the organizers for not doing a good job at advertising for this protest."

Palestinian American Rima Mohammad of Ann Arbor told ABC News that the campaign had only just begun and blamed attendance on "burnout."

"It's been many months since Oct. 7," she said, referring to the start of the war, after Hamas' attack on Israel and Israel's campaign in Gaza. "They've been protesting. There were much much larger crowds. At this point, what's going to be the action is the vote."

A diverse coalition

At the early-February press conference announcing the launch of their campaign, in Dearborn, Listen to Michigan stated that it had $250,000 to support its efforts.

Since then, it has broadened to become a collective effort with several other organizations, including the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee -- and beyond.

"The misconception is that this is a campaign that is only for Arab and Muslim voters in Michigan," said the ADC's executive director, Abed Ayoub. "I think people are gonna see on Election Day: That is definitely not the case."

Our Revolution, a group spun from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign, has also pledged support to the uncommitted movement (though Sanders himself does not).

"It's a new generation of young progressives who came up in the wake of Bernie's campaign who are all saying uncommitted," Our Revolution Executive Director Joseph Geevarghese told ABC News.

Michiganders Joseph Feinstein, a Jewish American, and Melina Herrera, a Latina, said that they wanted to show solidarity with the communities they live in by voting uncommitted.

"We need to stand up for those who are being persecuted," Feinstein told ABC News.

Down the street from the rally in Hamtramck on Sunday, at Al-Haramain International Food, ABC News asked shoppers if they had heard of the uncommitted campaign.

Abdo M., who declined to give his last name, said he hadn't -- but said he was committed to not voting for Biden in November.

The Biden campaign has made several attempts to reach out to the Muslim and Arab communities. Sources familiar confirm that Tlaib, the only active member of Congress to support the uncommitted push, met with the president's team and the Biden administration recently held three separate meetings with community members in an effort to repair ties.

But while detractors of this push have argued that it could help former President Donald Trump get elected -- and allow him to implement policies like his temporary travel ban on some majority-Muslim countries -- supporters say it's not about that.

Some Muslim and Arab voters told ABC News that they would rather vote for Trump over Biden in November, but Aiyash, the state lawmaker, said the movement is about lobbying Biden.

"We are leveraging our tools now to give this administration an opportunity to course correct," he said at Sunday's rally. "It is very clear to me we are not going to give Donald Trump the presidency. The question is: Do you support democracy or do you support genocide? And there is one way to do it."

'I have concerns'

The campaign was inspired by former President Barack Obama in 2008 when he withdrew his name from the primary after the Democratic National Committee sanctioned Michigan for holding its contest out of order. That year, nearly 240,000 Michiganders voted uncommitted in support of Obama.

Should the Listen to Michigan movement reach 15% and get at least one delegate, that would give them a voice -- even if a relatively small one -- at the Democratic Party's national convention this summer, which will be dominated by Biden supporters looking to rally the party against Trump.

"They could protest. They could make recommendations to change bylaws." said Florida delegate Nadia Ahmed.

Some Democratic allies of Biden have suggested that the the primary results on Tuesday shouldn't be taken as a sign he's being rejected -- for good -- by a potentially key voting bloc in a key swing state.

On a Biden campaign call earlier this month, Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell said that "an uncommitted vote is not a vote that says, 'I'm not voting for Biden in November.'"

"It's saying, 'I have concerns,'" she said.

Mohammad, the Palestinian American, agreed. She said the prospect of a Biden-Trump rematch has left voters "frustrated."

"I need to see action from [Biden]," she said. "The vote for now is really to send a message. I don't really know what's going to happen in November. I'm hoping to support Biden."

ABC News' Amanda Maile and Olivia Osteen contributed to this report.

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