Young Wisconsin progressives lead the latest protest vote against Biden over Gaza

MILWAUKEE — President Joe Biden may have the 2024 Democratic nomination sewn up, but his critics on the left are still aiming to use a primary in a key battleground state to send him a message.

Biden, who has faced protest vote campaigns in several states this year over his handling of the Israel-Hamas war, is now confronting one in Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary. Young progressives are leading the movement to vote “uninstructed,” the term on the Wisconsin ballot to vote for no candidate or “uncommitted,” to register their opposition to the administration’s response to the situation in Gaza.

Young voters in Democratic strongholds such as Madison and Milwaukee were critical to Biden’s victory in Wisconsin — and the Electoral College overall — in 2020, and they want to make clear to the president that he can’t take them for granted this time around. The Listen to Wisconsin campaign’s goal is to convince 20,000 voters to cast their Democratic primary ballots for “uninstructed,” which was roughly Biden’s margin of victory over then-President Donald Trump in the state four years ago. 

Halah Ahmad, a Palestinian American activist and spokesperson for Listen to Wisconsin, has been working with a group of 20 elected officials, students and other grassroots organizations to get the word out about the uninstructed movement since the campaign launched March 19.

Demonstrators stand around a speaker in Milwaukee
The Listen to Wisconsin campaign launches in Milwaukee on March 19.David Gladstone / NBC News

Ahmad voted for Biden in the 2020 general election after supporting Bernie Sanders in the primary. She said she was unsure how she would vote in the fall. 

“I feel really betrayed by the party leadership,” she said. “I think history will be on our side but, for now, if I want to participate in this democracy, the uninstructed campaign is my only option.”

Wisconsin’s primaries are open to all registered voters, regardless of party affiliation. In recent Democratic primaries, the uninstructed option has only received a few thousand votes. In 2020, 3,590 people voted uninstructed and in 2016, just 1,436 did. When then-President Barack Obama ran unopposed in 2012, 5,092 people voted uninstructed in Wisconsin’s Democratic primary.  

Without a formidable primary challenger from the left to support, progressives have turned to states like Wisconsin with an “uncommitted,” “uninstructed” or “no preference” line on the ballot to voice their opposition to Biden’s Gaza policies. 

The first major example of this movement took place in Michigan’s February primary. More than 101,000 people (13% of the electorate) voted “uncommitted” in the Democratic presidential primary, sending two of the state’s 117 delegates to the party’s national convention this summer. 

Outside Michigan, voters in more than a dozen other contests, including Hawaii, Minnesota and Washington state, have used a similar line on ballots as a form of protest

Biden still won these states overwhelmingly and will likely do so again in Wisconsin. As of Tuesday, 26 delegates headed to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago are “uncommitted,” while Biden has 2,610 delegates in his corner. Activists say their goal is not to win primaries outright, but to put pressure on Biden and the Democratic Party to change their stance on the war in Gaza.

“We’re seeing in Michigan and Minnesota that this voting uninstructed or uncommitted has been working, and opinions in D.C. have been somewhat changing,” said Jamilah Arabiyat, president of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Recent polls have shown public opinion nationally has turned against Israel during the war. A Gallup survey released last week showed 55% of Americans disapproved of Israel’s military actions in Gaza, up from 45% in November. Among Democrats, 75% said they now disapprove, up 12 points from November. 

“Democracy looks like listening to a majority of Americans who support a cease-fire,” Ahmad said. 

When asked about the uninstructed campaign in Wisconsin, Biden campaign spokesperson Lauren Hitt said in a statement: “The President believes making your voice heard and participating in our democracy is fundamental to who we are as Americans. He shares the goal for an end to the violence and a just, lasting peace in the Middle East. He’s working tirelessly to that end.”

Generational divide

Polls also show a clear age gap over the conflict. According to Gallup’s survey, 46% of voters 55 and older approve of Israel’s actions in Gaza, compared to 28% of voters 18-34.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, some of those younger voters have also been organizing an effort to educate more people about the uninstructed option on the ballot. 

“I think it’s important for students to see that this is a campaign that’s being, in a lot of ways, run by students and by young people who really care about this, and that this is not some like niche issue from other people, said Palestinian American and graduate student Dahlia Saba. “This is a grassroots movement.”

“Uninstructed is a way of saying, ‘I am participating in the Democratic primary. I want you to know that I’m an engaged voter. I really care about what’s going on. But none of the options here are speaking to what I care about,’” she continued. 

Saba, who said she has family members in Gaza, spent several hours handing out yellow flyers with information about the uninstructed vote and organized a phone bank on campus to reach even more Wisconsinites.

Dahlia Saba, a student activist, passes out flyers on campus
Dahlia Saba, a student activist, passes out flyers on campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to inform students about the uninstructed campaign.Lilly Umana / NBC News

“I felt a lot of cognitive dissonance of going to school, going to class, and acting like everything is normal when every day I see videos from journalists on the ground of the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And that has made me feel very powerless,” Saba said. “But organizing around this trying to fight for justice, and especially through this uninstructed campaign has allowed me to feel some more power and feel like I am actually working towards something.”

Events in Milwaukee and Madison also attracted advocates and allies from different age groups and backgrounds.

“I won’t allow our collective grief to be used as a weapon for more violence,” David Shapiro, a speaker with Jewish Voices for Peace, said after a press conference in Milwaukee.

Kasia Wiech, a member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s TA Graduate Union, volunteered to work on the phone bank and speak with Wisconsin voters about the uninstructed movement. 

“When I lived in Poland when the war in Ukraine broke, I did a lot of refugee work with Ukrainians. And I’ve heard stories firsthand from people who’ve run away from bombs, and no one should ever go through that,” Wiech said. 

Those involved with the uninstructed campaign also rejected the argument from critics that any vote against Biden is an effective vote for Trump. 

“I definitely don’t agree with that premise,” Ahmad said, “ I think it’s more so, again, centering November rather than centering right now. If in November, we still don’t have a cease-fire, I don’t know what will be left in Gaza. And that’s our focus in this campaign.”

Saba said that if the Biden administration doesn’t change its course soon, it could cost Democrats to lose the support of young liberal voters and potentially even the presidential election. 

“I care much more about right now than I do about November. What happens in the coming months will shape my view but to be honest, I can’t promise. I don’t know how I’m going to vote in November,” Saba said. 

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