"Uncommitted" supporters hold a rally ahead of Michigan's Democratic presidential primary election in Hamtramck

What ‘uncommitted’ voters in Michigan want

LIVE RESULTS: Michigan Primary 2024

Michigan voters have the option to vote for the Republican or Democratic presidential candidate of their choice until polls close Feb. 27. But a new campaign called “Listen to Michigan” has sought to offer another choice: “uncommitted.”

Casting an “uncommitted” vote on the Democratic presidential primary ballot is intended as a show of discontent for President Joe Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war and a warning sign about support in a key swing state that could help determine the outcome of the general election.

READ MORE: What to expect in Michigan’s presidential primary

More than 40 elected officials in the state of Michigan have pledged to vote “uncommitted” in Tuesday’s primary, including U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Michigan House Majority Leader Abraham Aiyash and Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud, among other mayors, representatives, county commissioners, city council members and school board members.

Michigan is among a handful of states that have an “uncommitted” option on their presidential primary ballots. The effort by Listen To Michigan, a multiracial, multicultural, multifaith anti-war coalition, came together in recent weeks after local activists and leaders felt that their rallying cries for the U.S. to stop funding Israel’s offensive in Gaza were not being heard.

The campaign to vote “uncommitted” is personal for many in Dearborn and Metro Detroit, an area with a large population of Muslim and Arab Americans, and strong ties to the Palestinian people directly affected by Israel’s war in Gaza. There are more than 300,000 Arab Americans in Michigan, about half of whom voted for Biden in 2020.

WATCH: Biden campaign working to regain support of disillusioned Democratic voters

“We have lost family members, we have lost friends, we have lost loved ones. … This community is made up of immigrants, first, second, third and so on, generations from that region. So this largely affects our community. Biden’s core constituency — Democrats,” said Layla Elabed, Listen to Michigan campaign manager and Tlaib’s sister.

Some 29,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war so far, about two-thirds of whom are women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. More than 69,000 Palestinians have been injured.

“We’ve protested, we’ve demonstrated, we’ve done die-ins. We’ve used our social media to appeal for a permanent cease-fire. We’ve written to our representatives, our elected officials. We’ve passed city resolutions within our own communities,” Elabed said. “It seems that our rallying cries are not loud enough.”

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A stack of flyers seen on the University of Michigan campus directs students to more information about the Listen to Michigan campaign to vote “uncommitted” in the presidential primary on Feb. 27. Photo by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang/PBS NewsHour

Early on in the 2024 get-out-the-vote efforts, “it became very clear that [Muslim American voters] feel very betrayed by the current administration. People were feeling completely apathetic towards voting,” said Hira Khan, the interim executive director of Emgage Michigan, a nonprofit organization that educates and mobilizes Muslim American voters.

Emgage has recruited volunteers who speak Arabic, Bengali, Urdu and Hindi to get out the word about the vote “uncommitted” campaign. Many voters did not know that voting “uncommitted” was even an option.

WATCH: Muslim, Arab American voters hope to send Biden message about handling of war in Gaza

Khan is concerned that continued voter apathy will lead to Muslim Americans sitting out, therefore diminishing their collective voice or getting cut out of the conversation.

“[Voting] ‘uncommitted’ provides them a pathway or an avenue to channel that energy and to use our democratic process to really voice their concern and dissatisfaction with the current government.” It is also in part a chance to create “a more civically engaged and less marginalized population in the future,” she added.

Muslim and Arab Americans in Dearborn have a long history of not being represented, but that has been changing in recent years, Elabed said.

Organizers of the movement want to reiterate that voters have a choice — and a voice. At this stage in the run-up to the election, voters don’t have to choose between Trump or Biden. Trump’s so-called Muslim ban is not far from the minds of many Michigan voters and members of the Muslim and Arab American communities across the U.S., but the fear that a Trump White House could once again impose such policies does not necessarily work in Biden’s favor. The “uncommitted” vote is not an endorsement of Trump, but rather a rejection of Biden’s policies on the war and an effort to show that their voices matter in U.S. politics.

“We’ve always mobilized around elections,” Elabed said. “We don’t want to feel the political disenfranchisement that we felt years ago. And so, especially with Dearborn, we believe in our political power.”

The goal of the campaign is for Michigan Democrats opposed to Biden’s policy in Gaza to demonstrate that there are enough votes to threaten his margin of victory for re-election, Elabed said. “It’s one of the most democratic things that we can do,” Khan said.

"Uncommitted" supporters hold a rally ahead of Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary election in Hamtramck

Supporters of the campaign to vote “uncommitted” hold up signs at a Feb. 25 rally in Hamtramck, Michigan. Photo by Rebecca Cook/Reuters

The campaign is taking a page from the 2008 Obama campaign playbook. At the time, then-senator Barack Obama was not on the Michigan presidential primary ballot, and his campaign mobilized young and Black voters to vote “uncommitted” as a symbolic rejection of Hillary Clinton. In the primary that year, “uncommitted” received 40 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 55 percent.

“They were able to mobilize young voters and black voters and [Black, Indigenous, people of color] BIPOC voters to vote ‘uncommitted,’” Elabed said. “It really did embarrass the Clinton campaign. And so we are using that same strategy.”

In 2016, Trump won Michigan by about 10,700 votes over Clinton. In 2020, Biden beat Trump by about 154,000 votes.

Fifty-three percent of Americans think it’s extremely or very important for the U.S. to negotiate a permanent cease-fire, according to a February AP-NORC poll. Among Democrats, that number is 66 percent. Half of U.S. adults think Israel has gone too far in its war against Hamas, the poll also found — up from 40 percent in an AP-NORC poll in November.

“If they feel that threat, if they feel that pressure, maybe they will finally do the right thing,” Elabed said.

We spoke to people at a recent “uncommitted” event and protest on the University of Michigan campus last week to hear more about why people were voting “uncommitted” and what they are seeking from the election.


Linda Wan, Ann Arbor baker and photographer

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Photo courtesy of Linda Wan

Ann Arbor baker and photographer Linda Wan has leveraged many forms of protest to express her discontent with the war in Gaza.

“I’ve been protesting and making non-stop calls to Congress and the White House,” Wan said.

She said she is horrified by the U.S. continuing to fund Israel’s campaign, including attacks on people’s homes, schools, and hospitals.

“And all we get are pretty words with no action,” she said. For her, “voting ‘uncommitted’ is one more tool.”

When Wan sees Israel’s reaction, she thinks back to the decadeslong U.S. “war on terror,” which “destroyed the countries of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria,” and took away money that could have gone toward other programs in the U.S.

Wan does not like social media, so she has been talking with friends one on one, face to face, which she finds more effective. When urging her friends to vote “uncommitted,” “about half the people are into it,” Wan said. “And half of the people have questions about how effective it will be.”

WATCH: Michigan mayor snubs meeting with Biden over Israel-Hamas war

Some of her friends are nervous about the possibility of weakening Biden’s position, but Wan feels that this is actually an opportunity to help him.

“If we show up big on Feb. 27 and let [Biden] know that this is important,” Wan said, then Biden can do the right thing, “It will be a strategic win and bring people to his side.”

Claudia Abboud, University of Michigan School of Social Work graduate student

Claudia Abboud is not sure where she first heard about the option to vote “uncommitted.” It may have been from one of her classmates at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, where she is a graduate student, or from her internship supervisor at the National Network of Arab American Communities in Dearborn, or from one of her social worker friends in other groups, like Michigan Social Workers for Palestine or Social Workers for Liberation.

But suddenly, talk about voting “uncommitted” took over the everyday chatter in Dearborn.

“It was kind of this thing everyone started talking about at the same time,” Abboud said.

Now, everyone Abboud talks to is “excited at the fact that we have a chance to do something, have our voices heard,” Abboud said. “But people are really weary.”

READ MORE: Arab American and Muslim mayors sweep local elections in Detroit suburbs

As she talks to people about what it means to vote “uncommitted” in the Democratic presidential primary this month — it is not a vote for Trump, and it is not a third party — she finds that people are on board.

“People are excited that there is something going on that makes them feel like they have an option,” Abboud said. “Because before we talked about the ‘uncommitted’ campaign, most people were completely taking voting off the table. Like, completely. It wasn’t even an option, something they could even think of doing. So it’s starting to engage people again, bringing them back into considering voting.”

For Abboud, voting is the way to make sure one’s voice is heard, so she keeps asking people if they are registered to vote, and if they express any hesitancy, she tells them about the “uncommitted” campaign.

“I don’t think we have a whole lot of ways to really make sure that our voices are being heard,” Abboud said. “But this is one direct way that we can, that we have some power we can leverage, that we can do something and communicate what our wants and our needs are directly to the source.”

Rima Mohammad, Ann Arbor School Board member, University of Michigan faculty

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Photo by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang/PBS NewsHour

Describing herself as a true Democrat, Rima Mohammad, an Ann Arbor School Board member, said “I can’t bring myself to support someone supporting genocide. I am hoping we can send a message that we need a change in course.”

“I’m frustrated with the government and with Biden,” she said.

Mohammad said that she is not a typical politician. She is a health care worker, a pharmacy professor, and a refugee. Her grandparents were forced to flee their Palestinian homes in the war and violence of 1948, her parents lived in the Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, and she came to America with her family when she was 5 years old. She also has family in Acre, Israel, who said that they do not feel safe and are afraid that what is happening in Gaza could affect them.

She also cannot support Trump for president and said, “It is not fair that we are blamed for actions that Biden is doing. It is not fair that Democrats are saying you have to pick between a president who is actively killing my people or a person who supports the Muslim ban.”

READ MORE: The only Arab American museum in the nation is ‘much more than a building’

As a Palestinian American, she feels devalued and unsafe. She said that Palestinians have become so dehumanized that calling for peace has become controversial. This is why she is running for state representative, to be able to represent her community.

“It’s not an international issue,” Mohammad said. “It is affecting us here. Islamophobia has become normalized. Anti-Palestinian racism has become normalized.” She said that people are losing their jobs and are getting racist threats and death threats. People do not feel safe.

She said while she knows that it is different for elected officials, she said that recent attacks against her feel different because she is being attacked for her identity as a Muslim and Palestinian American rather than her positions. “People email me saying that I am a Hamas sympathizer, I’m antisemitic. It’s not true. I am worried about my own safety,” she said.

Mohammad worries that if Biden does not change course, then he will lose the general election. “People focus on the Arab American, Muslim and Palestinian vote, but it’s much bigger than that,” Mohammad said, pointing to recent trips by the Biden campaign and administration officials to Dearborn. “He’s going to lose a lot of different voting blocks. No one wants war. No one wants their tax money sent to fund genocide.”

Annabel Bean, University of Michigan sophomore

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Photo by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang/PBS NewsHour

For Annabel Bean, a sophomore pursuing a double major in Spanish and social theory at University of Michigan, voting “uncommitted” is a way to pressure Biden directly. Describing herself as an anti-Zionist Jew, she said she knows that it is not antisemitic to support Palestinian liberation.

“It is a very Jewish value to stand up for the oppressed,” she said.

Bean is also co-chair of the University of Michigan chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and Young Democratic Socialists, and she is active in the call for the University of Michigan to divest funds that are invested in companies and funds that support and profit from Israel’s war.

“I’m voting ‘uncommitted’ because I know my vote, my tuition money cannot go towards genocide,” she said.

Bean has been having lots of positive and productive conversations with friends and family. She found that a lot of people were worried that voting “uncommitted” would be the same as a vote for Trump.

“But it is not, it’s a vote to not be complicit,” she said.

Zena Nasiri, University of Michigan junior

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Photo by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang/PBS NewsHour

Zena Nasiri, a junior majoring in linguistics at University of Michigan, is a member of the Young Democratic Socialists of America at the University of Michigan and the TAHRIR Coalition, which is a student-led group of 80-plus organizations urging the university to divest from Israel and the military-industrial complex.

Nasiri wants to send a message with her vote to call for a cease-fire in Gaza and to stop sending military aid to Israel, Nasiri said.

READ MORE: Decades after ‘the Arab problem,’ Muslim and Arab Americans are leading political change in Metro Detroit

“U.S. imperialism is so ingrained in U.S. policy that I have to think if I want to vote for Joe Biden,” she said. She is considering a third-party vote in November to send a message about the two-party system.

“A lot of people are frustrated and disillusioned by the way that American politics is right now,” Nasiri said. She wants to get more involved politically, but she said that she also wants politics to be more than genocide.

Cora Galpern, University of Michigan School of Social Work graduate student

Cora Galpern said she has “been really disillusioned by national politics the past couple of years, but particularly since Oct. 7.”

“I am so uninspired by the potential of a Trump-Biden general, that I’ve really just been tapped out from electoral politics at the national level,” said the University of Michigan School of Social Work graduate student.

Galpern has been protesting, calling her representatives and signing petitions, which she knows is helpful, but with “uncommitted” as an option,“this is the first time since Oct. 7 that I feel like we have a leverage tool that could actually push Biden to make a change.”

READ MORE: Why Arabic ballots are now being offered in Michigan and what this means for voter access in the U.S.

She said while the media often portrays the issue as one that is Michigan Jews versus Michigan Arabs, “this is a multi-generational, multiracial, interfaith movement that is united behind the call for a cease-fire. And I’m really, really excited to see Michigan turn out to vote ‘uncommitted.’”

As a member of Jewish Voice for Peace and the Michigan TAHRIR Coalition, she said she is now “pretty immersed in a new community that is comprised of Jews who share my values and who really deeply care about Palestinian liberation, and see it as deeply intertwined with the safety of Jews everywhere,” Galpern said.

“I know that there are plenty of people in the Jewish community who don’t agree with me,” she said. “But to me, this is fundamentally about my Judaism. I mean, the entire concept of being a good Jew to me is about social justice and the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world, welcoming the stranger, and questioning and asking hard questions at a time when other people are too scared too. So to me, I don’t even know what my Judaism would be without this type of activism.”

READ MORE: Why Arab Americans are pushing for a ‘Middle East or North African’ category on the census

Galpern has been talking about the “uncommitted” option with her classes, clubs, and housemates, and texting people together with friends (“text banking,” like phone banking but with texts). People are also seeing her social media posts and reaching out to her to tell her that they are going to vote “uncommitted,” which she said is rare.

“Social media posting is less effective than individual outreach, but I feel like in this instance, people are really feeling like this is an opportunity,” Galpern said.

“People are really excited about it. I think people feel very similarly in the sense that it’s the first time that we can actually be powerful in the short term,” she added. “Everyone I’ve told about this has been super excited. If they didn’t know there was a primary, they’re ready to get registered. If they did know and they weren’t going to vote, they’re now excited about ‘uncommitted.’”

Former U.S. Rep. Andy Levin

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Photo by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang/PBS NewsHour

Former U.S. Rep. Andy Levin said he is “very concerned that Joe Biden can’t win Michigan unless he changes course on Gaza” and he doesn’t think Biden can win the White House without winning Michigan.

Because Michigan’s primary is eight months before the general election, Levin said, Biden has “plenty of time to get a cease-fire and use diplomacy” to find a solution that makes people proud of him as a peacemaker who supports human rights.

Levin is particularly focused on young voters. Michigan leads the nation with young voters, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. Voters aged 18 to 29 turned out at a rate of 37 percent in the last election. The danger is not that young people might vote against Biden, Levin said. The danger is that they might stay home in November and not vote at all.

“Don’t stay home,” Levin said, encouraging young people to participate in the political process. “If you’re mad about Biden’s support for [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s war, come express yourself and vote. Vote ‘Uncommitted.’ Send him a message that you’re mad.”