Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Campaign to vote ‘uncommitted’ in Democratic presidential primary reaches Washington

President Joe Biden speaks Feb. 16 in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.  (Getty Images)

A campaign to vote “uncommitted” in the Democratic presidential nominating contest to signal anger with President Joe Biden’s support for Israel amid that nation’s siege of Gaza is building momentum in Washington state and the Spokane-area.

Biden’s re-election campaign has enjoyed a relatively unimpeded glide path to the Democratic nomination in August, facing only nominal opponents and easily winning the vast majority of votes in early primary states. Biden won over 80% of the vote in Michigan Tuesday, a clear victory; the second runner-up, however, was not Minnesota Democrat Rep. Dean Phillips or author Marianne Williamson, but “uncommitted,” which earned 13% of the vote statewide.

In the Michigan communities of Dearborn and Hamtramck, where Arab Americans make up nearly half of the population, “uncommitted” beat out Biden. Enough protest votes were cast in two of the state’s congressional districts that two “uncommitted” delegates will be sent to the Democratic National Convention in August, the first delegates thus far in the Democratic presidential primary not awarded to Biden, who remains well on his way to locking up the nomination.

Anti-war activists in Washington hope to add to the pressure campaign, with supporters planning a media conference Monday outside the downtown Seattle Federal Building to call on voters to cast a ballot in support of “uncommitted” in the upcoming March 12 presidential primary.

The death toll in Gaza, spurred by Hamas’ October attack on Israel, topped 30,000 Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

The protest vote was endorsed unanimously Wednesday night by the executive board of the largest union in Washington state, the United Food and Commercial Workers 3000, representing over 53,000 workers in Washington, northeast Oregon and North Idaho.

“We stand in solidarity with our partners in Michigan who sent a clear message in their primary that Biden must do more to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” the union wrote in a Thursday news release. “Biden must push for a lasting ceasefire and ending US funding toward this reckless war.”

“We think there’s an ongoing conversation to be had about whether (Biden) should be the nominee,” said Joe Mizrahi, the union’s secretary-treasurer, in an interview. “The whole point of primaries is to talk about what issues you want, and whether you think that you have a candidate most likely to beat the opposition. And we’re not convinced of that.”

Protest votes during presidential primaries used to be quite common, said Elain Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates.”

“It’s kind of new in our era, but it makes sense when you really only have one candidate,” Kamarck said.

“It indicates, as though we didn’t already know it, that there are some groups like young progressives, and especially Arab Americans, that are very unhappy with Biden over Gaza,” said Norm Ornstein, senior fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute, a D.C. think tank.

Ornstein noted that a substantial number of Michigan Democrats voted “uncommitted” the last time a Democratic president ran for re-election. In 2012, when then-President Barack Obama was running for re-election, nearly 11% of votes in the Democratic presidential primary were for “uncommitted.” Ornstein added that there were eight months to go before the November elections and that the situation in Israel and Palestine could change dramatically for the better or for the worst in that time.

Mizrahi noted that the UFCW would fully support Biden come November if he is the eventual nominee, as seems all but guaranteed.

State Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, agreed that voting uncommitted in Washington’s presidential primary election is an outlet for Democrats to let lawmakers know where they stand.

“It lets us see where work needs to be done,” said Riccelli. “There might be things on the agenda that people don’t want, and it helps people make that message clear and influence the platform that the nominee will run on moving forward.”

A vote during the August primary is an opportunity to get the incumbent’s attention and demand a response, said Spokane County Democratic Party Chair Naida Spencer, who noted that she had not heard much desire to vote “uncommitted” from people involved in the county party. However, she urged Democratic voters dissatisfied with Biden’s stance on Israel to not stay home in November.

“I understand that people are hurt, and we’re all appalled by the senseless murder in the whole region, but when it comes to picking a choice between Trump and President Biden – the first action Trump took was to install a Muslim ban,” Spencer said. “It seems like it goes against their self-interest to vote for Trump.”

Liz Moore, who serves as the executive director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, a nonprofit that has pressured local and national politicians to support a cease-fire but cannot legally weigh in on an election, said she supported casting a protest vote in the upcoming primary election.

“(Biden) needs to change his position in order to achieve what that region needs in terms of peace and well-being,” Moore said. “Strategically, he needs to understand the gap between his position and his base, and resolve that gap.”

Moore has already written “cease-fire” on the ballot she submitted, she said, which is separate from voting “uncommitted.” Votes for write-in candidates are not tallied unless the same one receives more than the second-most vote-getter that appears on the ballot.

Three Democratic candidates vying to represent Eastern Washington in Congress all said Friday that they understood the intent behind the protest vote, but none of them believed it likely to sway the Democratic nomination or change the trajectory of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. In addition, none expressed sharp disagreements with the Biden administration’s approach to the conflict.

OB-GYN Bernadine Bank and small business owner Ann Marie Danimus noted they had already voted for Biden in the primary. Former diplomat Carmela Conroy said she had voted, but declined to say for whom.

Bank and Danimus blamed Hamas and its international allies for the continued humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and Danimus criticized the U.S. military industrial complex for supplying weapons to the Middle East.

“If we could pull munitions from Hamas’ hands, then we would reduce risk of attack on Israel, and Israel would then be put on the spot to agree to a cease-fire,” Danimus said.

Conroy decried Republicans for holding up a $118 billion bipartisan national security package that includes aid to Palestinians, Ukrainians and others. Republicans have stated that compromises in the legislation regarding U.S.-Mexico border security are insufficient to win their support.

“I think pressure on the extremists in the House of Representatives is more important than pushing on the Biden administration,” Conroy said. “I don’t believe voting ‘uncommitted’ will change the Democratic race or change the situation in the Middle East.”

Moore acknowledged that it’s a long shot for her protest vote to persuade the president to change his policies.

“If we knew what would work, we would have done it already,” she said. “We keep going until something works.”

Reporter Ellen Dennis contributed to this report.