How Michigan Organizers Got 100,000 ‘Uncommitted’ Votes

Michigan organizers got 100,000 people to vote “uncommitted” and send a message to President Joe Biden about his policy in Gaza. Their effort likely won’t be the last.

One January evening, Waleed Shahid, a Democratic strategist based in New York, sent out a seven-page memo to over 100 people. It outlined a dramatic plan to show the White House that voters want President Joe Biden to change course in Gaza, and included a call for for an immediate cease-fire in a conflict that has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians.

The plan centered around the Democratic presidential primary in Michigan — a crucial swing state that is home to the largest Arab and Muslim population in the U.S. Shahid’s memo summarized talking points and what needed to be done to mobilize voters in Michigan.

Within days, more than a dozen people — including organizers, political strategists and activists — joined a Zoom call about the impending primary. Most people had their cameras off. Those with their cameras on looked exhausted. But they set a goal: Bring out at least 10,000 people to vote “uncommitted” in the state’s Feb. 27 primary to send a message to Biden.

Shahid was hopeful, but he wasn’t sure if reaching 10,000 voters would be possible.

On Election Day, the “uncommitted” vote had hit that number within minutes of the polls closing. By the end of the tally, more than 100,000 voters — more than 13% of the Michigan Democrats who voted in the primary — cast their ballots as “uncommitted.” The next day, a co-chair for Biden’s re-election bid acknowledged the Listen to Michigan campaign, telling NPR that their “message has been received.”

An effort to challenge Biden over his Gaza policy at the polls has been bubbling nationwide, and organizers in other states are attempting to replicate the Michigan success. Some Super Tuesday states — including Massachusetts, Minnesota, Colorado, North Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont and Alabama — have an “uncommitted” line or write-in slot on their Democratic presidential primary ballot. The Democratic Socialists of America, which has more than 92,000 members and chapters in all 50 states, endorsed the uncommitted vote Sunday. And last week, Washington state’s biggest labor union endorsed voting “uncommitted” in that state’s Democratic presidential primary.

But Michigan was a unique testing ground for the uncommitted movement, and it’s unclear if other states will see similar results. Over 200,000 registered voters in Michigan are Muslim, while 300,000 trace their ancestry back to the Middle East and North Africa. Donald Trump won Michigan in 2016, but Biden took the state in 2020.

“America really needs to learn from the Arab and Muslim community what political action and grace looks like in action,” said Shabd Singh Khalsa, the distributed director with the Listen To Michigan campaign.

‘Yell At Him On Your Ballot’

After the initial January Zoom call, Listen to Michigan organizers hit the ground running, reaching out to more than 1 million constituents. During those phone banking sessions, voters told canvassers they were frustrated with the White House — and most of them said they planned to sit out the vote entirely.

Then the campaign offered an alternative: Vote, but vote uncommitted.

“We were able to turn people out who were telling us on the phones, ‘I don’t vote. I don’t vote for people to kill my family,’” Seth Woody, the field director of the Listen to Michigan campaign, told HuffPost. “We were able to say, ‘Then don’t. Vote uncommitted.’”

Layla Elabed, the campaign manager for Listen to Michigan, said many voters were already looking past the primary when discussing their voting plans.

“We're tired of choosing between the lesser of two evils.”

- Layla Elabed, campaign manager for Listen to Michigan

“We weren’t even talking about the primary. We were talking about the general, about what we can do as far as our vote, because nobody wants to vote for Trump and nobody wants to vote for Biden,” said Elabed, whose sister is Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). “We’re tired of choosing between the lesser of two evils.”

Shahid said the Listen to Michigan movement was about voters leveraging the primary system to voice their concerns directly to the White House.

“This effort represents the best aspects of American democracy,” he said. “A community has a concern, and they’re using democratic means to express their concern. Primaries exist, the uncommitted options exist, and people use those levers to express their outrage and pain and anger with the president and their own political party.”

Critics of the uncommitted votes argued that organizers are causing unnecessary division among Democrats and have disenfranchised voters, but Woody and others disagreed.

“We are not demobilizing people for the general. To the contrary, we are registering people who have never voted to participate in politics, collectively,” he said. “This idea that we are threatening democracy is preposterous.”

More than 30 local politicians pledged to vote “uncommitted” in the leadup to the primary, including Detroit Councilwoman Mary Waters and Abdullah Hammoud, the first Arab American and Muslim mayor of Dearborn, which is home to one the largest Muslim and Arab populations in the country.

Nationally, the endorsements quickly rolled in as well, including from Tlaib, former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, former Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) and Josh Paul — the former State Department director who resigned over the Israel arms deal last October.

“People just felt disenfranchised and frustrated and sat home,” Levin told HuffPost. “Don’t stay home if you’re angry at the president, who you voted for, in 2020 and need to be reelected in 2024. Come out and shake your fist at and come out and yell at him on your ballot.”

Abbas Alawieh, a leader of the Listen to Michigan campaign, speaks during an election night gathering in Dearborn, Michigan, on Feb. 27.
Abbas Alawieh, a leader of the Listen to Michigan campaign, speaks during an election night gathering in Dearborn, Michigan, on Feb. 27.
via Associated Press

Other critics of the uncommitted campaign have downplayed the power of a protest vote, pointing out that Barack Obama faced similar votes in 2012 and went on to win the general election. Those criticisms, many of them from establishment Democrats, also argued that votes not cast for Biden were functionally votes in favor of a Trump presidency and only divided the party.

Listen to Michigan organizers pushed back against those arguments.

“It seems to be the only way Biden hears us,” said Abbas Alawieh, a senior political strategist and one of the leaders of Listen to Michigan campaign. “Michigan sent a strong message and Michigan is the state he needs to win if he wants to win the presidency.”

Elabed said that voters were already having conversations about how to leverage their votes, and the results of Michigan’s primary were just one example of that.

“Arab Americans and Muslim Americans were able to mobilize across the state of Michigan and create a coalition that was diverse and multiethnic and multiracial and multifaith, and we were able to do it under this banner of saving lives,” Elabed said. “Use your primary vote as a protest vote. This is the most democratic thing that we can do.”

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