How Wisconsin advocates hope to use ‘uncommitted’ votes to pressure Biden

Wisconsin’s April 2 primary will be latest forum for a movement hoping to force Biden to change his stance on Israel’s war in Gaza.

Organisers seek to encourage voters to cast 'uninstructed' ballots in Wisconsin's April 2 Democratic primary [Courtesy of Listen to Wisconsin]

Washington, DC – When Heba Mohammad, a 32-year-old organiser in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, first became involved in Democratic campaigning in the mid-2010s, she hoped that shifting public attitudes towards Palestine would soon be reflected in the party at large.

Now, she wants to leverage her experience campaigning for presidential candidates like Hilary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020 to rally a protest vote during Wisconsin’s Democratic primary on Tuesday.

Wisconsin is a pivotal battleground state in the United States, and advocates hope to use the vote to amplify the message that many Democrats will not stand for President Biden’s support of Israel’s war in Gaza.

The movement in Wisconsin follows similar primary protests elsewhere, as Biden seeks reelection in 2024. The idea is to forego casting a ballot for Biden, in favour of voting for options like “uncommitted” — or, in Wisconsin’s case, “uninstructed”.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Mohammad recounted the dilemma many Palestinian Americans like herself face in engaging with the Democratic Party. Most prominent Democrats, including Clinton and Biden, have supported a longstanding policy of offering political and material support to Israel, despite repeated allegations of abuses against Palestinians.

Rights groups have gone so far as to say Israel’s treatment of Palestinians amounts to apartheid.

“In my mind, I found ways to justify why I was able to work for those campaigns,” Mohammad said.

Heba Mohammad
Heba Mohammad shows off flyers encouraging Democrats to vote ‘uninstructed’ [Courtesy of Heba Mohammad]

“In 2020, more and more people were understanding Palestine, and there were slow shifts in public opinion,” she explained. “And so maybe in the back of my mind, I was hopeful that that change in social understanding would also translate to like the policy change.”

“As we know, it did not.”

The “uncommitted” movement emerged ahead of Michigan’s primary on February 27.

Arab Americans make up a larger proportion of Michigan’s population than that of any other state in the country, with more than 2 percent identifying as part of the diverse ethnic group.

But the “uncommitted” movement captured support beyond Arab Americans. Approximately 13 percent of the votes cast were for “uncommitted”, far outpacing the size of Michigan’s Arab American community.

Advocates say Michigan’s 101,000 “uncommitted” voters underscored solidarity across several demographics in the state, notably young people and progressives.

A similar effort in Minnesota was organised with far less time and resources — but it also blew past expectations, with nearly 19 percent of voters in the Democratic primary, or more than 45,000 people, casting “uncommitted” ballots.

Altogether, states including Washington, Hawaii, North Carolina and Massachusetts have seen hundreds of thousands of votes cast for “uncommitted”, accounting for about half a million voters.

Critics point out, however, that it is impossible to determine which “uncommitted” votes were cast as part of the Gaza protest, as opposed to other reasons.

Wisconsin will offer its own test to the “uncommitted” movement. Last week, the organisers behind the original Michigan movement launched the Uncommitted National Movement, seeking to marshal primary protests elsewhere.

Wisconsin, which has a smaller percent of both Arab Americans and Muslims than Michigan or Minnesota, is the first state the new national campaign is throwing its weight behind.

But regardless of the outcome in Wisconsin, Zeina Ashrawi Hutchison, a Palestinian American activist and development director at the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, said the movement has already made an “important and long term” impact.

“What will have an impact on the election in November and beyond … is the unprecedented engagement by all walks of life, the improvement in organising and the unity of the Palestine movement,” she said earlier this week, speaking at an event hosted by the Arab Center Washington DC.

“Another crucial factor is Americans’ understanding of and exposure to the plight of the Palestinian people — and hopefully their long-term engagement as well.”

‘I can’t do this any more’

For Mohammad, her break with President Biden came swiftly. In May 2021, the year Biden took office, Israeli strikes began raining down on Gaza in response to rockets fired by Palestinian fighters that killed 13 Israelis, including two children.

The Israeli missiles killed 260 Palestinians, including 39 women and 67 children, and 1,800 residential units were destroyed during the 11-day assault. Rights observers decried it as yet another disproportionate response from Israel.

“At that point, I said to myself, I can’t do this any more. I refuse to work for any candidate or any party that is not clearly pro-Palestine. And that was that,” Mohammad said.

She co-authored a letter that denounced the Biden administration’s policy towards Israel as one that “deprives Palestinians of peace, security, and self-determination”. It was signed by 500 former Biden campaign and Democratic National Committee staffers, but it elicited no course change from the administration.

In many ways, the letter presaged the internal dissent Biden has seen as the current war in Gaza has progressed.

Some observers have called the current protest movement unprecedented, with federal workers secretly organising protests, employees of prominent agencies writing letters appealing for change, and high-profile resignations.

To date, at least 32,623 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, with aid groups warning the population is on the brink of a man-made famine. While the Biden administration has upped its criticisms of Israel, it has refused to leverage the substantial military aid it provides to the country.

Meanwhile, polls have shown widespread support for a ceasefire among Democrats. A recent Gallup poll found that 55 percent of the US public disapproves of Israel’s actions in Gaza, up from 45 percent in November. Among Democrats alone, that number was 75 percent.

While organising in Wisconsin, Mohammad said she was struck by how many people were connecting US policy towards the war to domestic issues.

“People are really understanding that the crisis in Palestine is linked to all of the local crises we’re facing here. That’s true even outside of the cities, where maybe we would tend to expect more folks to want to mobilise for this,” she said.

“We’re losing hospitals in rural Wisconsin,” she added. “At the same time, we’re seeing hospitals being bombed in Palestine with our tax dollars.”

Leveraging expertise

The group Listen to Wisconsin has set a goal of reaching 20,682 uninstructed votes in the state — the margin by which Biden beat Trump there in 2020.

Mohammad acknowledges that her work in 2020 helped to clear that margin. During that presidential election cycle, Biden campaigned heavily to reclaim Midwestern states that Clinton had lost to Trump in 2016.

For her part, Mohammad specialises in “relational organising”, a strategy she oversaw in the state during Biden’s 2020 run. The approach uses “friend-to-friend outreach” to create a web of engagement that extends beyond community members who typically vote. Response rates from that type of outreach tend to be exponentially higher than traditional cold-call phone banking, she explained.

“When I reached out to [Listen to Wisconsin], I told them I wanted to make sure that we’re using the same kind of proven tools and techniques to turn out our community for ‘uninstructed’,” she said.

“I’m really proud that I can use the programme that I built in 2020 to win Wisconsin to hold Joe Biden accountable and to make our demands clear.”

On Tuesday, when asked about the Wisconsin protest effort by the Milwaukee-based radio station WTMJ, Biden campaign co-chair Mitch Landrieu described it as an expression of free speech: “I think President Biden thinks that everybody ought to, you know, exercise their First Amendment right.”

He then pivoted to the November general election. “When the chips are down and the future of democracy is at stake, there will be two choices,” he said. “And I believe that the people of Wisconsin are going to do the right thing.”

The primaries, at this point, are largely a formality. Both Biden and Trump have already cinched the number of delegates needed to be named their parties’ nominee in the general election.

But several prominent Democrats and donors have warned that Biden should urgently respond to the message the “uncommitted” movement is sending.

In a memo obtained by NBC News earlier this month, two prominent Democratic fundraisers, Tory Gavito and Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, warned the “uncommitted” turnout should be seen as a “siren and a clarion call”.

The energy behind the movement, they said, should not be “ignored, taken lightly or dismissed”.

For Mohammad, the current moment underscores a larger failing of the Democratic party and an inability to reflect the grassroots and activist networks it regularly courts.

“I do think they’re missing out on the talents of individuals like me, and I also think they’re setting a bad example for other people who might be considering getting engaged and don’t feel heard,” she said.

“If the party cares about its organising power and its future, they’re making a big mistake,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera