Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud speaking at a vote "uncommitted" gathering.
The “uncommitted” vote on Tuesday blitzed past any publicly stated goals organizers had. Carlos Osorio/AP

‘Uncommitted’ Mattered in Michigan. The Next Steps for the Movement Are More Difficult.

“Michigan just happens to be like the perfect storm of everything,” said one political organizer.

Organizers of the hastily assembled but highly organized campaign to use Michigan’s primary ballot as a protest against President Joe Biden’s support for Israel saw the swell of votes for “uncommitted” on Tuesday as a strong message to the president and his campaign that they need to change course or risk electoral disaster.

But while the outcome has far exceeded organizers’ public expectations or predictions, and signals real weakness for Biden in a crucial state come November, Michigan’s results could be difficult to replicate in other states. “Uncommitted” received more than 100,000 votes — a little over 13% of the vote but five times as many protest votes Barack Obama received in 2012. Biden won Michigan by around 154,000 votes in 2020.

Organizers of the Listen to Michigan campaign, the main group urging voters to check “uncommitted,” were focused on getting 10,000 votes — a number similar to Trump’s margin of victory over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016. It was a low goal, well below the votes “uncommitted” received in 2012. But the “uncommitted” vote on Tuesday blitzed past both numbers.

Listen to Michigan declared total victory at a rally in Dearborn as results came in, saying they likely won at least one “uncommitted” delegate to this summer’s Democratic National Convention. It won’t be enough to stop Biden from winning the nomination. But Biden supporters in Michigan who tried to tamp down activists’ enthusiasm by warning openly protesting Biden could make it easier for former President Donald Trump to win in November are going to have to continue making that argument for a while.

In a statement, Biden did not mention the “uncommitted” movement but nodded to “every Michigander who made their voice heard today.”

Even before the result, Arab American leaders in upcoming primary states — including North Carolina, Texas and Virginia — described plans to replicate what happened here, promising their own protest-vote movements. But Michigan may prove hard to recreate, said organizers on the ground in Dearborn Tuesday, despite their hope that the pressure campaign can thrive moving forward.

“Michigan just happens to be like the perfect storm of everything,” said Eric Suter-Bull, a 26-year-old political organizer whose home and day job is in northern Virginia. The high population of Arab Americans, the early slot on the primary calendar and the fact that this state offers primary voters an “uncommitted” ballot line made it the best opportunity to build the narrative that Democrats have a problem if they don’t listen to protesters demanding a change in policy toward Israel, he said.

“The votes tonight for ‘uncommitted’ send a clear message to President Biden…This is a warning sign,” said Lexis Zeidan, a spokesperson for Listen to Michigan.

“We have the audacity to put people over president,” said Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud.

The Biden campaign says it is just focused on beating Trump ahead of the primary, pouring its resources in the state into preparing for November. An aide told NOTUS that the campaign respects that organizers are sending a message to the president on Gaza and that they didn’t view the “uncommitted” effort as explicitly anti-Biden.

“We’re listening,” they said. “We didn’t treat today as a competitive primary between us and ‘uncommitted.’”


As dawn broke in Dearborn Tuesday, paid Listen to Michigan staff and volunteers gathered at the Hanini Outreach and Community Center downtown for their election day operation.

Mara Matta, the phone-banking lead for the group, sat at a folding table in the spartan Hanini club glued to her laptop. She’s a veteran of Michigan progressive political organizing and one of the paid members of Listen to Michigan’s 26-member staff of full-time employees and unpaid volunteers.

On the computer screen was the administrator’s backend of a phone-banking program volunteers accessed from their own computers. It had all the hallmarks of a modern campaign. The operation was based on lists of regular Democratic primary voters pulled from the public voter file and sorted to seek out the most likely voters to be swayed to vote “uncommitted.” Organizers said the effort resulted in hundreds of thousands of calls during the course of the campaign.

Eric Suter-Bull holds a Vote Uncommitted sign
“Michigan just happens to be like the perfect storm of everything,” said Eric Suter-Bull. Paul Sancya/AP

“To give you perspective on the level we’re running at,” Matta said, “several of our volunteers or staffers are [veterans of] the Bernie campaign. And the number of calls we’re making is on par with a national presidential campaign.”

The “uncommitted” campaign rapidly came together. Listen to Michigan launched less than a month ago, and on Monday, said in a memo that they’d only spent around $200,000. Arab American leaders in North Carolina, Texas and Virginia told NOTUS they’ve drawn inspiration from Michigan and will launch their own campaigns against the president in the coming days. Organizers in those states are hoping to reach thousands of voters by phone banking, email and social media campaigns (including posting in Whatsapp groups) and by doing in-person outreach at places of worship. In Washington, which also has an “uncommitted” line in its upcoming Democratic primary, activists are beginning a similar push.

The activists are part of massive demonstrations against Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, when the group killed or kidnapped more than 1,000 people. Israel, in response, has conducted an ongoing military campaign in Gaza, killing tens of thousands and displacing more than 2 million people.

The president’s allies have already shown they’re paying close attention to this protest movement, even as the Biden campaign kept a very low profile in the Dearborn area Tuesday.

Over major thoroughfare Ford Road, an electronic billboard switched from ads for local businesses to a campaign spot featuring a picture of Biden touting a cap in insulin prices and another urging Democrats to “vote by Tuesday, Feb. 27.” That was about it, according to “uncommitted” activists.

But everything leading up to Tuesday has suggested there has been a lot of interest in Dearborn within the president’s circles. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported on leaked audio from a meeting between activists, local leaders and a senior foreign policy official. That followed other visits from top campaign officials. Some Arab Americans in Michigan recently told NOTUS they would likely stay home or vote against Biden in November.

Biden’s campaign rejected the idea that there’s “unique panic over the ‘uncommitted’ effort.”

“We are concerned about every constituency in Michigan,” the Biden campaign aide said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a close Biden ally, has publicly tried to put voters’ focus on their likely choices in November. “People have a right to make their voices heard,” she said of the protest movement on NBC this week. “At the end of the day, I am advocating that people cast an affirmative vote for Joe Biden, because anything other than that makes it more likely we see a second Trump term, and that’s bad for all the communities.”

Listen to Michigan organizers say they’re not thinking about Trump.

“I think people keep trying to relate it to electoral votes and they’re thinking Listen to Michigan is driving electoral votes,” said Zeidan, who had been organizing direct civil disobedience actions like shutting down highways with protesters before joining Listen to Michigan. “But in reality, people keep missing this central part of our messaging, which is a strategy that has organized a protest vote for people to get behind.”

Layla Elabed, the head of Listen to Michigan, is enmeshed in progressive political action in the state, both as an organizer with the We the People campaign and the sister of progressive Rep. Rashida Tlaib. But she said Listen to Michigan had done what it set out to do and will likely shut down after the primary.

“People are going to vote their conscience,” she said of the November election. “We’re not going to be operational during that time.”

What happens next depends on how seriously the campaign is taken by others, she said. So far, those efforts don’t appear to be gaining the same kind of steam the campaign in Michigan did.

The Texas Arab American Democrats are encouraging voters to vote “blank” or support media personality Cenk Uygur. (Uygur, who was not born in the United States, is likely ineligible to become president, though his name is still on the ballot in the state.) In North Carolina, the Palestine Freedom Forum is encouraging voters to check “no preference” as an option. The New Dominion PAC, a group supportive of Arab American candidates in Virginia, is throwing its support behind Marianne Williamson, who dropped out of the presidential race weeks ago.

“Results in Michigan give us momentum to build on,” Hatem Natsheh, an organizer part of Texas Arab American Democrats, said Tuesday night.

All three efforts are independent and aren’t working with Listen to Michigan. They also aren’t currently working with Our Revolution, the independent organizing group created out of the remnants of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 run and that backed Listen to Michigan but is broadly supportive of Biden’s reelection.

“I would argue anything over 10,000 would be a clear signal to the White House that they have a political problem in a key battleground state,” Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution said Monday, a benchmark “uncommitted” surpassed in the vote count within 30 minutes of polls closing Tuesday.

“I expect movement from Biden in response to our campaign, and we’re discussing where to focus next,” Geevarghese said in a text as results came in Tuesday night.

The next “clear signal” number has not been decided on.

Leaders in Texas and North Carolina couldn’t point to an exact turnout number that would render their efforts successful, but in Virginia, 8,000 votes for Williamson is the sweet spot that would force the White House to take their cease-fire demands seriously according to Dr. Hanna Hanania, a New Dominion PAC board member.

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On Tuesday afternoon, activists on the ground in Michigan kicked around the potential for similar campaigns in Washington state or Minnesota as a trickle of voters walked into their polling places.

Among them was national progressive activist Linda Sarsour, who was in Michigan working with the Democratic Socialists of America. (The DSA is supporting the “uncommitted” project but organizers at Listen to Michigan said many of the group’s allies have not directly coordinated with them.)

Sarsour said if organized protest-voting against Biden continues nationwide, it will likely struggle in states that don’t offer some kind of “uncommitted” line like Michigan does. In order to give people a real opportunity to vote against the president’s policies, it helps if there’s a ballot line to vote for.

“It’s easier when you can just fill in the little bubble, you know?” she said.

Evan McMorris-Santoro is a reporter at NOTUS. Tinashe Chingarande is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.