Middle East

Arab American Democrats push for ‘uncommitted’ vote in Michigan primary to send message to Biden about Gaza

By Arit John and Dianne Gallagher, CNN

Dearborn, Michigan CNN  —  Layla Elabed isn’t ready to think about November.

In 2020, the Palestinian American activist and longtime Michigan Democrat backed Joe Biden for president. But like many Arab Americans, she feels betrayed by his response to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and the rising civilian death toll. Biden would need to curtail US military aid to Israel and call for a permanent ceasefire before she could even consider supporting him in November, she said.

And as for Tuesday’s Democratic primary in Michigan, she’s leading the charge to convince Democrats to vote “uncommitted.”

The Listen to Michigan campaign was launched less than three weeks ago by Elabed and other Arab American activists in the Wolverine State. It’s a last-minute effort to send a “clear, sharp message” to Biden, his administration and the Democratic Party to address the concerns of the coalition that helped him win in 2020, said Elabed, the effort’s campaign manager and the sister of Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian American woman in Congress.

“This is not an anti-Biden campaign,” Elabed said. “It’s a humanitarian vote. It’s a protest vote. It is a vote that tells Biden and his administration that we believe in saving lives.”

Since its launch, the effort has been endorsed by progressive groups such as Our Revolution and more than three dozen current and former state and local leaders, including Tlaib and former US Rep. Andy Levin. Volunteers have contacted more than 100,000 voters in the state, according to organizers.

Organizers say they hope at least 10,000 people will vote uncommitted in the Democratic primary, a nod to the 10,700-vote margin that delivered the state to Donald Trump in 2016. They drew inspiration from the state’s 2008 Democratic primary, when “uncommitted” came in second place to Hillary Clinton with more than 40% of the vote. Clinton’s rivals at the time, Barack Obama and John Edwards, had removed their names from the Michigan ballot after the Democratic National Committee punished the state for moving up its primary.

If thousands of Michigan Democrats vote uncommitted Tuesday, it would be the clearest sign yet that Biden’s handling of the conflict in Gaza could cost him critical votes in November. Arab and Muslim Americans make up a substantial voting bloc in Michigan, a key battleground state. In 2020, nearly 146,000 Muslim Americans voted in the general election in Michigan, according to an analysis by Emgage, a group working to grow Muslim Americans’ political power. Biden won the state by 150,000 votes.

The Michigan secretary of state’s office announced last week that more than 747,000 people had returned their absentee ballots for the 2024 primary and more than 50,000 people had cast their ballots at an early voting site.

The president’s reelection campaign has responded to the Listen to Michigan effort by emphasizing Biden’s domestic accomplishments, framing the general election as a binary choice between Biden and Trump and stressing that the administration is listening to people’s concerns and open to future conversations.

“The President is working hard to earn every vote in Michigan,” a Biden campaign spokesperson said in a statement. The spokesperson pointed to Biden’s work to create union jobs, protect abortion access, lower Black unemployment and “create a just, lasting peace in the Middle East.”

Lavora Barnes, the chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, said she was glad Democratic voters are getting involved, but she believed they would back Biden in November once they were reminded of what’s at stake.

“Do you want a president who has worked hard to support Michiganders and make their lives easier, or do you want a president who has, frankly, supported a Muslim ban?” Barnes said. “That’s the difference, and people will choose Joe Biden in November.”

But Biden’s critics argue it’s not their responsibility to fall in line. Instead, the president is the one who needs to be more receptive to them.

“If there is a group of people in the entire country or world who most wants Donald Trump to be as far away from the White House as possible, count me among that group,” said Abbas Alawieh, a Democratic strategist and spokesperson for the Listen to Michigan campaign. “What our movement is saying to [Biden’s] team is that you are losing Michigan by making your policies synonymous with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s.”

Levin, the former congressman, said he plans to vote for Biden in the general election but is backing the “uncommitted” effort to encourage people who are upset with the president’s stance on Gaza to let him know while there’s still time to fix things.

“I think the great danger for Joe Biden here in the Michigan primary is that he would win with no indication that he has a problem, with no visibility of how angry people are,” Levin said. “Yes, it’s centered in the Arab American community and in the broader Muslim community, but it’s also a big problem in the African American community and among young voters and people of color, generally.”

Listen to Michigan’s “uncommitted” campaign comes nearly five months after the start of the Israel-Hamas war. Hamas killed more than 1,200 people in its attack on Israel, according to Israeli authorities, and more than 240 were taken hostage. Israel’s military retaliation has killed nearly 30,000 people in the Gaza Strip, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Americans, particularly Democrats, have become increasingly wary of Israel’s campaign in Gaza and critical of Biden’s response. An AP-NORC poll released this month found that 31% of US adults, including 46% of Democrats, approved of Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict, while 67% disapproved. Fifty percent of adults, including 62% of Democrats, said Israel’s military response to Hamas’ October 7 attack had gone “too far,” up from 40% of US adults and 58% of Democrats who said the same in November.

In recent weeks, the Biden administration has stressed its efforts to get humanitarian aid into Gaza and sharpened its tone toward Israel. Earlier this month, Biden told reporters that Israel’s response in Gaza has been “over the top.” Behind the scenes, the administration has grown more frustrated with Netanyahu and warned against launching a ground offensive in Rafah, where 1.5 million Gazans have fled, without a plan to protect civilians.

After local leaders in southeast Michigan rejected the Biden campaign’s efforts to meet this month, the administration sent officials who acknowledged “missteps” it made in response to the crisis, according to a recording of a private gathering obtained by The New York Times.

Last week, the US opposed a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire for a third time, casting the lone “no” vote. Ahead of the veto, the US for the first time introduced a draft resolution calling for a “temporary” ceasefire.

Feelings of betrayal and guilt

For many Arab and Muslim Americans in Michigan, the push to vote uncommitted and promote a ceasefire is deeply personal. Activists and voters describe feeling grief over the rising death toll in what they have called a genocide and enduring guilt over the role their tax dollars have played in fueling US military aid to Israel. Israel has denied allegations that its military operation in Gaza amounts to genocide.

At a recent Listen to Michigan event in Dearborn, several of the two dozen people in attendance grew emotional as May Seikaly, a professor emerita of Arabic at Detroit’s Wayne State University, described her experience being forced to flee her home as a child after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 in what is known as the “Nakba,” or catastrophe, in Arabic. More than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their homes in what is now Israel.

As she closed her remarks, Seikaly criticized the Biden administration for vetoing the recent UN Security Council ceasefire resolution.

“We definitely are angry. We are definitely betrayed. And definitely, we should vote uncommitted,” she said.

Listen to Michigan organizers have framed their effort as a way to get the Biden administration to change its policies to prevent a loss for the president in November.

But some who are voting uncommitted in the primary say they don’t see a path for Biden to win back their vote in the general election.

Sylvie Yaacoub, a 38-year-old nurse from Westland who attended the event where Seikaly spoke, said she’d already voted uncommitted. She said she regretted her vote for Biden in 2020 and hoped to see him lose Michigan in the general election.

“You don’t allow 30,000 people to be murdered and then expect me to vote for you,” she said, referring to the estimated death toll in Gaza. “What it would take to fix what they did is call for a ceasefire immediately – a permanent ceasefire, not temporary.”

Elabed said she understood why people would feel like they can’t bring themselves to vote for Biden in the general election. But for now, the campaign’s focus is on Tuesday, regardless of how they feel about November.

“What we are asking is, no matter what side you’re on, do not stay home on Tuesday,” Elabed said. “Come out and vote, and help us send that message to Biden.”

CNN’s Jade Gordon contributed to this story.

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