‘Groundbreaking’: Michigan’s uncommitted vote for Gaza should ‘worry’ Biden

Michigan movement ‘surpasses expectations’ with more than 100,000 votes cast in protest of unequivocal US support for Israel.

Natalia Latif
Activist Natalia Latif tapes a 'Vote Uncommitted' sign on the speaker's podium during a primary election night gathering in Dearborn, Michigan, on February 27 [Rebecca Cook/Reuters]

In the Michigan city known as the capital of Arab America, United States President Joe Biden came second in the Democratic primaries, in a vote hailed as “groundbreaking”.

Most Democratic voters in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn chose “uncommitted” over the incumbent, as part of an organised effort to denounce his “unwavering” support for Israel’s war on Gaza.

And it wasn’t just Dearborn. Initial results, released early on Wednesday, reveal that more than 101,000 people across the state joined the protest campaign at the ballot box.

Advocates said the numbers serve as an enormous rebuke to Washington’s backing of Israel, not to mention a warning sign for Democrats heading into the general election in November.

“It’s huge,” Palestinian-American human rights lawyer Huwaida Arraf said of the “uncommitted” tally.

But Arraf, who is based in the Detroit area, said Tuesday’s 101,000 votes do not fully convey the growing frustration at Biden’s policies.

She pointed out that some voters opted to cast their ballots for other candidates also to display displeasure with the incumbent president. Both Marianne Williamson and Dean Phillips, who challenged Biden for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, have previously called for a ceasefire.

Phillips won 20,000 votes while Williamson, who dropped out of the race ahead of Tuesday’s voting, received more than 22,000. In the aftermath of the state primary, Williamson has announced she would relaunch her campaign.

Arraf added that many people chose not to participate in the process altogether. She explained that the “uncommitted” campaign was working with limited resources and started only a few weeks before the election.

“Tuesday’s showing of no confidence in Biden, anger with Biden and people’s willingness to use their vote to express that extreme discontent should have the Biden team and all Democrats very, very worried,” she told Al Jazeera.

One of the groups behind the effort to vote “uncommitted”, the Listen to Michigan campaign, celebrated the results in a social media post.

“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” it wrote.

The group promised to continue the pressure at least until the Democratic National Convention in August when the party will officially choose its candidate after the individual state primaries and caucuses. It has not, however, released an announcement about its stance on the general election — and whether it will encourage voters to boycott Biden then.

‘Historic’ vote

The adage of “every vote counts” rings especially true in Michigan.

That’s because in November’s general election, presidential candidates compete in individual state contests for Electoral College votes. Those Electoral College votes then decide who wins the White House.

In recent general elections, the victor has come down to just a handful of key “swing states”, which can tilt either Republican or Democrat.

Michigan, home to more than 10 million people, is one such state. It is often won by small margins.

For instance, in 2016, former President Donald Trump beat his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, in Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes. The state was crucial to putting Trump in the White House.

In 2020, Biden beat Trump by about 150,000 votes in Michigan — roughly equal to the number of voters who did not support Biden in this primary election. Recent polls have shown an even tighter general election race in the likely event of a rematch between Biden and Trump.

The electoral math, according to Sally Howell, an assistant professor at University of Michigan-Dearborn, means the Biden campaign “has to be concerned about Michigan”.

Howell said the significance of Tuesday’s vote cannot be understated with the Arab American and Muslim voters in the state showing their electoral leverage despite representing a relatively small proportion of overall voters.

The Arab American community makes up about 2 percent of the electorate in Michigan, she explained. Together with the Muslim electorate, which overlaps with the Arab American community, they represent about 3 percent.

“I think it’s historic,” she told Al Jazeera. “And for Arab American political participation, it’s really groundbreaking. I don’t think they’ve ever gotten the attention of a presidential campaign like they have it now.”

‘Not over yet’

In Arab American- and Muslim-dominated areas like Dearborn, the story is in the numbers.

For instance, in Hamtramck, a Detroit-area town that is believed to be the only Muslim-majority city in the country, the ballot category “uncommitted” received 61 percent of the votes, compared with 32 percent for Biden.

But even in areas with no significant Arab and Muslim presence, the uncommitted campaign made a strong showing, underscoring that the movement has extended beyond individual communities.

For example, in Washtenaw County west of Detroit — a liberal stronghold that is home to the main campus of the University of Michigan — 17 percent of Democrats voted uncommitted.

Overall, 13.3 percent of voters cast “uncommitted” ballots in Tuesday’s state primary with nearly all votes counted, far outpacing the Arab American and Muslim representation in the state.

Howell explained those results offer a forecast for other state races, particularly as Super Tuesday — the day with the most state primary contests — approaches next week.

“It’s also not over yet,” Howell said. “There are other swing states with an Arab American community or a Muslim American community or an African-American community that is in solidarity with Palestinians or a young, educated population.”

“All of these groups are going to have paid attention to what’s happening in Michigan.”

Advocates in nearby Minnesota, which has a large Muslim and Somali American population, have already upped their efforts to urge residents to vote “uncommitted” in the state’s Super Tuesday primary.

The Michigan campaign “has just shown us that we CAN alter the course of Biden’s actions with added pressure”, Asma Nizami, an advocacy director at the Minnesota-based organisation Reviving Sisterhood, wrote in a post on social media.

Still, what happens next remains unclear with some “uncommitted” voters saying a policy pivot from Biden could still win their vote.

Others, including those who have rallied behind the Abandon Biden campaign, have said the administration cannot undo the damage already done.

Palestinian-American comedian and organiser Amer Zahr was among those calling for continued efforts to deny Biden a second term. He described Michigan’s vote as a “true rejection of Biden’s disastrous policies of support for the genocide in Gaza”.

“Now, the work continues. We must stay the course of denying Biden our votes. For the martyrs in Gaza. For our dignity. Otherwise, we turn into Ted Cruz, and nothing matters,” he told Al Jazeera in a statement, referring to the Republican senator who endorsed Trump even after he insulted Cruz’s wife.

Congressional Progressive Caucus chairperson Pramila Jayapal, speaking to CNN on Tuesday, said Michigan’s results showed there has to be a “dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election”.

For his part, Biden did not mention the “uncommitted” movement or the Israel-Gaza war in a statement hailing the more than 618,000 votes cast in his favour in Michigan.

Instead he thanked the influential United Auto Workers union, which has called for a ceasefire while still endorsing Biden. He also pledged to boost the state’s auto industry, repair crumbling infrastructure and support working families.

“This fight for our freedom, for working families, and for Democracy is going to take all of us coming together,” he said in a statement. “I know we will.”

Biden’s approach appears to align with an argument made by some Democrat-aligned commentators who believe the war in Gaza will be a non-issue in November. They maintain the US news cycle will have moved on by then.

But Palestinian rights advocates said the Michigan vote should be a warning to Democrats not to assume that voters have a short memory. Human rights, they argued, are a central issue to many and the scale of the Gaza war has evoked warnings of “genocide”, including from United Nations experts.

“It’s energising and a success story of a deeper conscience across communities — Arab, Jewish, Black, white, politically involved and apolitical,” Adham Kassem, an Arab American activist, said of the vote.

‘Voters are not stupid’

Advocates contended that Biden’s unequivocal support for Israel, coupled with his questioning of the death toll in Gaza, has left a mark for many voters that will not soon wash away.

Early in the conflict, Biden asked Congress to approve $14bn in additional aid to Israel, a request that legislators are still working to fulfill.

On Tuesday, as people in Michigan were voting “uncommitted”, Biden met with congressional leaders to push the foreign aid bill that includes the additional Israel assistance. The measure would also ban funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), an aid group.

His administration vetoed a ceasefire resolution at the UN Security Council for the third time last week.

That is why a recent softening in tone from the Biden administration has rung hollow for many, according to Arraf.

Biden and his officials have recently called on Israel to minimise civilian harm in Gaza and acknowledge the “unimaginable pain and loss” of Palestinians — but Arraf warns this could come across as “doublespeak” because the administration continues to back the Gaza war.

“Voters are not stupid, and, therefore, this kind of rhetoric is further insulting,” she told Al Jazeera.

Kassem added, “Every one of these uncommitted votes is someone who took time off their day to vote against what we’ve all watched — a depraved indifference to life by an administration that’s hoping time will forgive.”

“It doesn’t, and these voters won’t forget.”

Source: Al Jazeera