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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Oliver Laughland in Dearborn, Michigan

‘Uncommitted’ vote in Michigan a warning shot over Biden’s support of Israel

A man speaks into a microphone in front of a projection showing a ballot with a check next to 'uncommitted' and an empty cirle next to
Abdullah Hammoud, the mayor of Dearborn, speaks at an election night watch party held by the Listen to Michigan campaign on Tuesday. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

Standing before shimmering gold curtains on Tuesday evening, the mayor of Dearborn, Abdullah Hammoud, spoke with pride about his city.

“We had the audacity to choose people over political party,” he said. “We had the damn audacity to put people over president.”

For many gathered at this sprawling banquet hall in the heart of America’s most concentrated Muslim population, the outcome of last night’s Democratic primary in Michigan was beyond even the boldest of predictions.

Although Joe Biden took the state, it was the hastily organized but committed grassroots campaign against the president’s support for the Israeli government’s war with Gaza that took the night. Organizers with Listen to Michigan, a group that urged voters to withdraw support for Biden and instead vote uncommitted, had hoped for a showing of 10,000 votes. They returned more than 100,000 – a clear demonstration of the growing fractures among the diverse coalition that brought Biden to power in 2020.

It is a warning shot to the Democratic party, and shows more signs of expanding than diminishing as the primary season wears on.

In just four weeks, the uncommitted campaign mobilized a cohort of progressives concentrated in the suburbs of Detroit, a region that saw a significant rise in Democratic turnout four years ago.

“This is a humanitarian vote,” said the campaign’s manager, Layla Elabed, a 34-year-old lifelong Democrat, as she sipped coffee at a Yemeni cafe on a frigid Sunday morning, two days before the vote. “Right now, Joe Biden sits in a place of power where he can actually change course and save lives.”

Elabed, the sister of the US representative Rashida Tlaib – the first Palestinian American to serve in Congress – met Biden last year at the White House during Eid celebrations. The president has heard personal stories of their grandmother’s struggles living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, she said. “But it feels a lot like it’s falling on deaf ears.”

Her next stop was a rally in the city of Hamtramck, where those assembled underlined not only the movement’s diverse collective of ages and race, but also the divergent outlooks on how the campaign could or should affect the general election in November.

“I’m very focused on the moment,” said Dima Hassan, a Palestinian American who would be voting in her first presidential election in 2024. “What is happening right now is an active genocide so thinking about November honestly feels silly.”

Yet Tuesday’s result should send alarm bells ringing for that vote, given the thin margin of Trump’s victory in 2016, which saw him swing the state red by just more than 10,000 votes. Organizers say the group is also representative of the large Democratic disapproval ratings of Biden’s handling of the war, the death toll in which is likely to surpass 30,000 in Gaza by this week.

Although hastily convened, Listen to Michigan is well organized, with an effective phone banking operation making more than 500,000 calls in just a matter of weeks, according to the campaign. But with no official headquarters, meetings are held in cafes and living rooms. Elabed’s car is laden with boxes of flyers that she hauls alone, darting between locations.

Although Biden sent campaign representatives to meet with members of the Arab-American community here earlier this month and on Monday expressed hope of a ceasefire, recent comments from the state’s Democratic governor that equated an uncommitted vote to effective support for Donald Trump were met with scorn.

Muslim communities in Dearborn and elsewhere endured rising rates of hate crimes during the Trump presidency, following a campaign laced with Islamophobia. Trump implemented a travel ban for several Muslim majority countries, which he has pledged to reinstate if he wins in 2024.

With just a few hours left to vote on Tuesday afternoon, polling stations in Dearborn were still welcoming a steady flow of primary voters. At an intersection by the McDonald elementary school, Linda Sarsour, the New York-based organizer, was handing out flyers to those who trickled through. Most had already decided to cast their ballot uncommitted.

Sarsour, who co-chaired the Women’s March in 2017 and became a prominent activist during the Trump era, expressed contempt at those within the party making the Trump equation.

“Shame on them for gaslighting this community,” she said. “This is a presidential primary, this is democracy and people should be able to vote for whoever they want. Donald Trump is not part of the Democratic primary.”

She continued: “But also the ball is in Joe Biden’s court. Why start pointing fingers at the voters when they should be pointing fingers at Joe Biden. They should be demanding that Joe Biden do better in order to keep these voters within the Democratic party.”

Sarsour was one of a handful of volunteers from outside Michigan who had come to support the campaign on Tuesday. Others had arrived from Florida, Illinois and Washington, as the grassroots effort looks to expand beyond Michigan.

Efforts are already under way for an uncommitted vote in Minnesota and also in Washington, while other states that do not offer an uncommitted ballot option may see new write-in campaigns.

“This is becoming an opportunity to translate protest in the street to protest at the ballot,” Sarsour said.

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