How vote uncommitted is fast becoming the most powerful force for a ceasefire

Organizers with Listen to Michigan explain the Vote Uncommitted campaign’s rapid growth and the power of grassroots electoral organizing on Gaza.

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SOURCEWaging Nonviolence
Image Credit: Dymanh Chhoun/Sahan Journal

As we pass 150 days of Israel’s war on Gaza, with more than 30,500 Palestinians massacred, the call for a permanent ceasefire and an end to U.S. security assistance to Israel has never been stronger. Nowhere has this public demand been better demonstrated than in the recent Michigan presidential primary. 

In late January, about three and a half weeks out from the election, a group of multiracial and multifaith organizers came together to form Listen to Michigan and launch the Vote Uncommitted campaign. Through phone banking and media outreach — and with the support of Michigan’s Arab and Muslim American communities — the campaign reached out to registered Democrats and asked them to vote “uncommitted” rather than support President Biden’s reelection. While the campaign was not an endorsement of Donald Trump, it was an opportunity for Democratic voters to express their disappointment with recent policies and send a message about their demand for a permanent ceasefire and an end to the military aid fueling genocide in Gaza.  

On Feb. 27, the message was sent: More than 100,000 people who voted in the primary — roughly 13 percent of Michigan Democrats — cast their ballots as “uncommitted.” In Dearborn and Hamtramck, predominantly Arab American communities, the uncommitted vote received more than 50 percent support, beating out Biden. For comparison, Hamtramck voted for Biden by a 5-to-1 margin just four years ago. Then, yesterday, a week after the Michigan primary, as Minnesota took to the polls on Super Tuesday, a similar campaign was organized resulting in an even larger win with 18.9 percent of registered Democrat voters casting their ballots as “uncommitted.” 

In light of these recent victories — and ahead of Wisconsin’s Democratic primary in April — I spoke with Shabd Singh and Seth Woody, Listen to Michigan’s distributed organizing director and field director, respectively. Both are seasoned organizers, having been involved with the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign, the Sunrise Movement and the training institute Momentum. We discussed the campaign’s rapid growth in a short amount of time, the Biden administration’s already shifting rhetoric on ceasefire and the power of grassroots electoral organizing.

How did Listen to Michigan and the Vote Uncommitted campaign get started?

Woody: The thing about organizing circles is everybody’s always trying to keep a finger on the pulse and [look for] the opportunities. So I think there was some organic energy in Michigan thinking about uncommitted. There had been folks connected to the Obama campaign in ‘08 that were sort of like, “Hey, this has happened before.” There was also this ceasefire write-in campaign in New Hampshire, and Shabd was part of the team that got some initial data that was very encouraging. Even though that project didn’t really get to scale, the calls that were made were really exciting. 

Singh: Waleed Shahid [of Justice Democrats] put a random ask out in this group chat that we’re part of saying, “Hey, these folks in New Hampshire are trying to phone bank in support of this write in ceasefire. Can anybody help?” I was already running If Not Now‘s phone banking program as a volunteer, so I just jumped in and helped them make a few thousand calls. It was a much smaller, very last minute, kind of campaign in New Hampshire, but it really did give us those first calls. And the data that came out of it was definitely an important piece of helping us feel like we could do something in Michigan. 

What did the data from New Hampshire show?

Singh: Well over 50 percent of the Democrats that we spoke to were ready to write in ceasefire in protest. And 80 percent, maybe 70-80 percent were pro-ceasefire. Not all of them were ready to write in ceasefire, but they were very upset and motivated by this issue. So it just showed us that there was really wide disappointment and energy to mobilize against the war, against the genocide. 

From the phone banking in New Hampshire and your previous experience, were there any lessons that you brought to the Vote Uncommitted campaign in Michigan?

Singh: The data that came out of New Hampshire was a live test of what happens if you call and have conversations with several hundred democratic voters about this issue. So that was a huge learning indication. But as far as organizing tactics, it was very much just like: Get people together on a web-based forum. Get them phone banking. We specifically use Scale to Win, which I think is the easiest to use dialer system. We were able to get online very quickly and the Working Families Party got us onto their dialer. I think maybe the learning that came out of that was that it’s really helpful to have entities that can quickly deploy voter outreach tools like this in our ecosystem on the left. The fact that they were able to come in and provide that for a couple of days helped me understand that  — if you have a volunteer base — there are these entities in place, or you can build them pretty quickly and stand up these voter outreach tools very quickly, if need be. That’s probably the main learning I would take away from New Hampshire. 

Singh: In Michigan, thankfully, we had an organization called Arab Americans for Progress and they housed the dialer for us, which allowed us to make these calls. They were the initial entity that carried our budget and was able to pay for the service. So, it was a similar situation, but we had to bring them as they didn’t have existing infrastructure. They gave us the legal entity and housing and bank account where we could put our budget to actually get it off the ground. I’d say it’s a direct learning from New Hampshire, but this isn’t the first time it’s ever been done either. 

Woody: Shabd comes out of the Bernie campaign, and I was part of the team that ran field for Sunrise in 2019 and 2020. We knew how to quickly stand up an infrastructure that could scale rapidly. This is coming out of my experience in the Momentum community, where we’ve been training movement organizers on how to build campaigns that can quickly absorb that kind of grassroots energy, scale it up and then leverage that into big public demands moving on an issue. With that experience of Shabd with If Not Now and me with Sunrise, we were able to come in as national support and quickly build infrastructure for the grassroots operation in Michigan. There was national attention coming in on the campaign, and we were going to catch the wind — and if we caught enough wind, we could really build a scaled operation really fast, and that’s what happened. So we went from like 15 If Not Now volunteers running our first phone bank shop two and a half weeks out from election day to — on our peak day — making 96,000 calls with over 100 volunteers calling. By the end, during [get out the vote] weekend, our daily average was 60,000 plus. So that’s just an incredible growth arc. 

Part of that came from knowing what we were doing, but another significant part was a result of the conditions on the ground being just perfect for us to run this experiment. I would say for organizers out there who want to learn some lessons from this experience, it’s like there was strong, preexisting grassroots infrastructure that was highly mobilized by Oct. 7 — super dense organizing networks in the community — and no good strategy or tactic available to properly leverage or harness that mobilization. So we had that. We also had enough local political talent, both on the campaign and surrounding the campaign, who could understand how we could leverage this energy appropriately and use it in the press and have a national game. And then we also had experienced distributed organizers who are familiar with how to build a rapid infrastructure. All of those things came together really well. 

Part of what happened is that the team that formed had enough shared understanding of those conditions to be able to say: “This is worth doing. We can give our time, energy and capacity to this immediately, and it’s going to be worth it.” Initially, we were discussing how to talk about our goal internally and externally. We settled on this 10,000 vote differential [or the difference in raw vote total between first and second place] because it represented a very meaningful number in terms of the national story about Michigan and it being a swing state. Our field team goals internally were that we thought we could hit that 10,000 number just on our own operation, if we get to scale. We could privately guarantee talking to 10,000 voters who say yes to uncommitted. Our final numbers were something in the nature of 6,500 individual commitments. But with vote tripling, we felt like we had smashed that 10,000 number internally. I think there’s also a lesson here of trusting our intuition about the potential that was on the ground and maximizing it. 

What other organizing was happening at the same time as phone banking?

Singh: We had a really small core team and a lot of highly motivated volunteers who were doing things. Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA, when they got involved, started putting on door-to-door canvases and made a lot of contacts. There was also a lot of relational organizing. We had an organizer, Dima Alhesan, who was our relational lead, and they put together multiple web-based trainings to get people from around Michigan onto relational organizing apps to build out their networks of people. They also did things in the Dearborn community like printing out flyers and canvassing people on Friday evening prayers at the mosque. But I think what we tried to impress upon folks was that flyering at the mosque is great and relational organizing is awesome — but as far as that big, big push to get the word out as wide as possible, we felt like we really needed to lean into the distributed voter outreach. That was really key. If people weren’t out canvassing, we were like, please be on the phones. We even tried in-person phone banks, and we canceled them because people kept on chit chatting too much and not making calls. Obviously, there’s wonderful things that can come together that don’t involve making calls, but we wanted to maximize that. So we actually pivoted back to doing only virtual phone banks, even in the community. And our numbers were helped by that. We also did texting and stuff like that as well. 

Woody: On the texting front, one thing that we kind of went back and forth on in the beginning — just in terms of figuring out how to do infrastructure — was that both of us were familiar with building distributed infrastructure with Slack. That’s just kind of the normal go-to. And we knew pretty much immediately that that was not going to work. Most of that was because the Arab American and Muslim community, in general, is just on WhatsApp. Basically all immigrant communities in the United States are on WhatsApp. So we just built a WhatsApp infrastructure. 

That feels like a critical lesson for distributed organizers: Do not waste your time building an independent communication infrastructure when the communities you’re working with are clearly on one platform. WhatsApp has its limitations, but we have almost 1,000 volunteers still active on WhatsApp threads right now who are just churning calls into other states. A really key lesson for us was to stick to WhatsApp. We were able to do a lot of vote tripling and relational organizing via WhatsApp because people could drop digital flyers into their WhatsApp groups. We were on calls with people, aunties and uncles, who have 30 WhatsApp chats with all their family members, which would be 50-60 people, and they would just drop flyers and drop asks. We had precincts in Hamtramck and Dearborn that went 92 percent uncommitted. I think a lot of that had to do with some serious WhatsApp activity.  

How were you able to scale the campaign and the number of volunteers involved in such a short amount of time?

Singh: Anecdotally, it felt like a lot of people were coming because they felt like it was a concrete action they could take in support of a ceasefire and one that was in a forum that the political system might actually pay attention to. There was also a very intelligent media strategy from the beginning here, too. There’s no competition happening in Michigan. There’s no competitive primary. Reporters are covering the presidential election, but there’s not really a competition to cover. So it’s not very interesting. Part of the thinking behind the campaign was using a vacuum in media coverage and filling that with the work that we were doing. So that helped things catch on really fast. 

Then there was the really motivated direct, grassroots, word-of-mouth recruitment through WhatsApp. Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now and DSA all became national endorsers, which got their networks aware, but everybody has kind of maintained their own various infrastructures. We’ve had this floating, distributed infrastructure that these other organizations can glom onto or tap into, which was cool because they didn’t each need to stand up their own programs. We held that down, and then they would send people.  

Woody: To break that down a little further, there were like three phases to the growth and our orientation to it. Phase one was to immediately mobilize national movement organization infrastructure. So, If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace are highly mobilized bases. They had both already been on phone making programs for more local campaigns, like ceasefire resolutions, where they were calling into their city councilors or state representatives. We quickly were able to plug them into distributed calls going into Michigan. 

Phase two was getting enough grassroots energy from the campaign and getting a lot of local media hits. We had some really inspiring local electeds — like Mayor Hammoud [of Dearborn] — who were starting to generate that. 

For phases three and four, we got the local DSA chapters behind the initiative. They petitioned the national to get behind it and we got national endorsement from DSA. They started hosting their own phone banks, driving volunteers to us. Other national movement organizations were in a similar moment. They read the weather a little bit and could tell something was happening. By that point, we had enough national volunteers coming in that we could really generate more grassroots activity. We had enough density of callers that we were generating volunteers from the phone banks into more phone banks from Michigan. And at that point, we were able to build up a really solid on-the-ground operation for the last week. 

Since the Michigan ballots have been counted, how do you think it went in terms of both results and organizing successes? 

Woody: It went very well. 

Singh: Surreal. 

Woody: So something that’s just incredible about the campaign that we ran is that we were generating almost a majority [42 percent] of our yeses from people that absolutely would not have turned out for this primary and who were not going to vote. I think that that is such an important takeaway because we’re getting all this bullshit from mainstream Democrats about how we’re demobilizing the base and how we’re setting up the candidate who’s going to come out in November to not be able to win Michigan. We can very credibly say the opposite is true. We are the only voter mobilization campaign in the primary. Biden is not mobilizing the base. We are mobilizing the base and the coalition that’s going to be required to win in November. We’re going to see that on Tuesday, too. I’m very confident about what’s going to happen. 

Singh: The point that Seth made about 40 percent of people coming from the non-voting and unlikely voting category — it said a lot to me. There’s a lot of orthodoxies and assumed or received wisdom about how you’re supposed to do political organizing, and that’s good to learn and it’s good to take on. But it’s not law. For example, on the Bernie campaign, people would have gone crazy if I’d have suggested going to WhatsApp organizing instead of Slack because you can’t thread responses and you can’t do x, y and z. But thank God, we weren’t thinking that way because it wouldn’t have worked. I think there’s a lot to learn here that we’re still only able to scratch the surface of. 

Woody: Just to give credit, Eden Zimak was our data director. Eden is from Detroit and has worked in electoral data in the past and made some crucial decisions about including non-voters. Something that’s beautiful about a campaign that’s this short is that you just have to trust everybody as much as possible. I think that can get you in trouble when you don’t have a coherent strategy or a very unified movement demand. Part of the conditions that we were really benefiting from is that an end to military aid for Israel and a permanent ceasefire were universal as the movement’s demands. We didn’t have to really grapple with an internal battle about where do we go. 

We also benefited from the crystal clear logic of the tactic that we were deploying. I’ve never experienced how easy it was on this campaign to talk to the most auntie-auntie or uncle-uncle you could ever imagine in Dearborn, Michigan, who has never interacted with or volunteered for a political campaign. When we told them what we were doing, they were like, “Yes, I want that. Thank you for giving me the option. I’m ready to register to vote. I’m ready to volunteer.”

We were talking about this on a call yesterday that in my lifetime I have not participated in or felt such a clear pathway to a lever of power around American foreign policy and wars abroad. I remember going out in the streets for the Iraq war when I was a kiddo and from then on, I’ve participated in lots of mass protest movements, which is often the best and only avenue to express our discontent with foreign policy. But this campaign — and what we’ve tapped here with Uncommitted — is like the most powerful collective lever that I’ve ever felt available for people who believe in peace to stop a genocide. 

I think what we did in Michigan already [shows] there’s no pathway to a victory in November if they don’t change their policy. And what we’re going to be able to do in Wisconsin in a few weeks is even more of that. There is no road if you cannot win both of these swing states. We can demonstrate that we have literally hundreds of thousands of voters mobilized to participate in an uncompetitive primary. You can bet your ass you’re not going to be able to get those votes without a change on Gaza. That is incredible from a lever of power that we can collectively express around foreign policy, which is often the movement’s most abysmal pathway.

Have you heard from the Biden administration?

Singh: There was a meeting very early on in February where the Biden admin sent people into Michigan and some of our folks like our spokesperson Abbas Alawieh and Layla Elabed, I think, met with them. They were basically just coming and trying to appease and say, “Oh, there hasn’t been enough empathy shown to Palestinians” and all that kind of stuff. The response from Abbas was to personally ask Samantha Power and all of these people face-to-face if they had personally advised the president to halt sending arms and to call for a ceasefire. 

Woody: I mean, they straight up did not acknowledge us on the primary day, which we thought was pretty funny. There has been no contact with our campaign. 

Kamala Harris recently called for a temporary ceasefire in Selma, Alabama. Is this a victory for Listen to Michigan?

Woody: I think it’s important for movement organizers to claim victory when it’s visible. I think on that level we are able to say — and we put this out publicly — that our efforts are resulting in this change in the words. We’re very crystal clear that it is not our demand. We’re able to say to everyone, “Look, they are moving. Let’s keep fighting.” To us, it’s just a way of saying let’s keep going because they’re obviously scared. But certainly, it’s a victory. 

We went from a situation in which we have millions of people mobilized in the streets every weekend for months around the world with no movement [from the White House] whatsoever to — less than a week after our primary — Kamala Harris speaking to pissed off Black voters in Selma and pretending like they’ve put a ceasefire option on the table. We’re not confused by the way that they’ve framed it as “Hamas is to blame if the ceasefire doesn’t go through,” because that’s incredibly hypocritical given that we are still sending weapons. What kind of ceasefire is enabled by you sending bombs? I mean, preposterous, but a victory nonetheless. 

What comes next?

Woody: We’re moving into this phase where the infrastructure that came out of Michigan will act as hopefully a floating distributed infrastructure that can go in and help states in a strategic way. Unfortunately, we don’t have the resources and the volunteer capacity to help every single uncommitted state. But in a strategic way, we’re going to basically keep this dialer and infrastructure running so that we can help stand up a national voter outreach program in states where we think it makes the most sense. 

Singh: If you go on our socials right now, you’ll see there’s been a lot of grassroots energy, and we put out a grassroots guide that has laid out all the states that have options and the ways people can participate. Our perspective is: How can we most responsibly direct this energy towards the next most strategic lever available to the movement? And that is a combination of factors. It’s like swing states that matter to the election in November, places where there’s high densities of grassroots networks and of course, ultimately places where there’s an option on the ballot to vote uncommitted. Part of what we understand our role to be in this movement ecology is absorbing a lot of that national energy and helping direct it towards the right place to do the maximum punch electorally. 

Woody: For some folks who are maybe a little bit hesitant to participate in uncommitted, it’s because they’re not super turned on by the idea of playing with the delegate system and riding the primary wave. I understand the feeling there and the revulsion toward this system that forces us to play a game while people are being massacred. Unfortunately, it’s also the reality that we live in. We’re just basically trying to maximize the amount of attention and pressure that we can mobilize by using this delegate system. 

So we’re saying if you have an uncommitted or uninstructed in your state, please get on board. And if you’re not in one of those states, we’re saying please plug into our national outreach infrastructure. Ultimately, for the folks who have more of a ceasefire write in, protest vote attitude — no disrespect, but also the door is open. We need your calling support. We need your volunteer support. And we’re on the same team. We have the same goal of ceasefire and justice and peace in the region for all people. We just think that this is a more effective and more attention grabbing strategy. Certainly, we want to keep all aspects of this movement. We don’t want to alienate anybody. We want everybody to be walking together and fighting this fight together. 

Do you have any advice for other organizers working at the nexus of mass movement politics and electoral politics?

Woody: I think the experiment we ran in Michigan is incredibly important to learn from as a development that’s been bubbling in the left for the past five or six years. And it’s not unique, but there’s a trend of how do we thread the needle between mass movement popular demands and narrow electoral participation. I want to stand this campaign up as a really good example of how you can do that effectively, how you can thread the needle, how we talked about what we were doing, how people felt about what we were doing. 

I want to encourage movement organizers to keep being creative at the intersections of national movement politics and electoral politics. I think there are more opportunities available to us at that intersection than we take advantage of — and some of it is about a skill gap, some of it is just a relational gap. One thing that was really powerful about this campaign is that we bridged a lot of typical organizing culture and lineage divides quickly. I just want to slightly tip my hat to Momentum as a place where a lot of people are thinking about that and experimenting on that level. 

Singh: Grassroots direct action does not have to be at odds with electoral organizing. I think that there’s a way here. These very powerful and clear demands that we’re organizing around can harness mass movement energy. Instead of cutting a tactic out of our playbook because we don’t like the system that it involves us in (which, I freaking get having worked in and around the mainstream electoral and nonprofit world), we need to understand that interacting with elections is how people understand politics in this country. It’s a powerful way to mobilize people, as we’ve just shown, that doesn’t necessarily have to compromise on the values that we’re fighting for. 

Like Seth said, let’s keep experimenting. Let’s keep being creative and flexible here, because the people that we’re up against are not ideologically rigid. They’ll do whatever it takes. They’ll take whatever position or whatever tact in messaging to break up our coalitions, to halt our momentum. We need to be open minded. And we shouldn’t be cutting out entire aspects of our potential toolkit for ideological purity reasons. I think you can maintain your values while engaging in this real world. I’m from the Sikh religion and we have this philosophy or this image of the lotus flower. It floats on top of ponds that can be muddy and mucky, but it has tools to keep itself clean. I think that we need to maintain our own integrity and our own community and our own organizing amongst each other, and engage in this messed up political world to be able to actually make headway.

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