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

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

MILWAUKEE — Chairman Joe Biden The 2024 Democratic nomination may already be clinched, 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 faced protest voting campaigns in several states this year over his handling of the war between Israel and Hamas, now faces a voting campaign in Tuesday’s primaries in Wisconsin. Young progressives are leading the movement to vote “uninstructed,” the Wisconsin ballot term for voting for no candidate or “uncommitted,” to express their opposition to the administration’s response to the situation in Gaza.

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

Dahlia Saba, a student activist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, holds a flyer describing the uninstructed vote.  (Lilly Umana/NBC News)

Dahlia Saba, a student activist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, holds a flyer describing the uninstructed vote. (Lilly Umana/NBC News)

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 raise awareness of the uninstructed movement since the campaign launched on March 19.

Protesters stand around a speaker in Milwaukee (David Gladstone/NBC News)Protesters stand around a speaker in Milwaukee (David Gladstone/NBC News)

Protesters stand around a speaker in Milwaukee (David Gladstone/NBC News)

Ahmad voted for Biden in the 2020 general election after supporting Bernie Sanders in the primaries. She said she wasn’t sure how she would vote in the fall.

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

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The Wisconsin primary is open to all registered voters, regardless of party affiliation. During the recent Democratic primaries, the no-instructions option received only a few thousand votes. In 2020, 3,590 people without education voted, in 2016 only 1,436. When then-President Barack Obama ran unopposed in 2012, 5,092 people voted without instructions 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 express their opposition to Biden’s Gaza policy .

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

Outside of Michigan, voters in more than a dozen other elections, 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 heading 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 the primaries outright, but to put pressure on Biden and the Democratic Party to change their position on the war in Gaza.

“We see in Michigan and Minnesota that this uninstructed or uncoerced voting has worked, and opinions in DC have shifted somewhat,” said Jamilah Arabiyat, president of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Recent polls have shown that public opinion has turned against Israel at the national level during the war. A Gallup poll released last week found that 55% of Americans disapproved of Israel’s military actions in Gaza, up from 45% in November. Among Democrats, 75% said they disapprove now, a 12-point increase from November.

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“Democracy is akin to listening to a majority of Americans who support a ceasefire,” Ahmad said.

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

Generation gap

Polls also show that there is a clear age difference regarding the conflict. According to Gallup’s survey, 46% of voters aged 55 and older approve of Israel’s actions in Gaza, compared to 28% of voters aged 18 to 34.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, some of those younger voters have also made an effort to educate more people about the no-instructions-on-the-ballot option.

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

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

Saba, who said she has relatives 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, hands out flyers on campus (Lilly Umana / NBC News)Dahlia Saba, a student activist, hands out flyers on campus (Lilly Umana / NBC News)

Dahlia Saba, a student activist, hands out flyers on campus (Lilly Umana / NBC News)

“I felt a lot of cognitive dissonance going to school, going to class and pretending everything is normal when I see videos every day from journalists about the most horrific thing I have ever seen in my life. And that makes me feel very powerless,” says Saba. “But organizing around this effort to fight for justice, and especially through this uninstructed campaign, has made me feel a little more empowered and like I’m actually working toward something.”

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

“I will not 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 TA Graduate Union, volunteered to work the phone bank and speak to Wisconsin voters about the uninstructed movement.

“When I lived in Poland when the war broke out in Ukraine, I did a lot of refugee work with Ukrainians. And I’ve heard firsthand stories of people running from bombs, and no one should ever have to experience that,” Wiech said.

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

“I strongly disagree with that premise,” Ahmad said. “I think it’s more the case because it’s about November rather than centering it now. If we still don’t have a ceasefire in November, I don’t know what will be left in Gaza. And that is our focus in this campaign.”

Saba said if the Biden administration doesn’t change course soon, Democrats could lose the support of young liberal voters and possibly even lose the presidential election.

“I care a lot more about November now than I do about November. What happens in the coming months will shape my opinion, but honestly I can’t promise that. I don’t know how I’m going to vote in November,” Saba said.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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