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Pennsylvania pro-Palestinian and progressive groups launch a protest-vote campaign against Biden

A man holds a Vote Uncommitted sign
Paul Sancya
Eric Suter-Bull holds a Vote Uncommitted sign outside a voting location at Saline Intermediate School for the Michigan primary election in Dearborn, Mich., Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024.

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. If you want it earlier — we'll deliver it to your inbox on Thursday afternoon — sign up here.

Perhaps there is no more time-honored tradition in American democracy than being disenchanted with the candidates you are given.

But don’t expect Democrats to thank the 30 pro-Palestinian and progressive groups who want voters to write in “uncommitted” rather than vote for President Joe Biden in the April 23 Democratic primary. As war rages in Gaza, the effort’s organizers blame Biden for not doing more to rein in Israel, which receives billions of dollars in aid from Washington.

“I have been deeply impacted by the ongoing genocide in Gaza, especially because my taxes are being used to directly kill my own people,” said Harrisburg activist Hadeel Salameh during a news conference Wednesday.

The campaign builds on efforts to vote for the “uncommitted” or “uninstructed” ballot lines in Michigan and Wisconsin.

“Pennsylvania is up next, where Biden only won by 80,000 votes in 2020,” said news conference host Ron Joseph. “He will need every vote to win in November, and polls show him trailing behind Trump.”

Unlike Michigan, Pennsylvania doesn’t offer an “uncommitted” option for selecting delegates. Organizers instead hope to get 40,000 Democratic voters to use the write-in option. But the success of that effort may be tough to gauge for a couple reasons.

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One is that voters write in candidates’ names all the time, particularly in races where the winner faces no real rival: In Allegheny County, 6,253 Democrats cast write-in ballots in the 2020 primary, when other options included Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard. And no matter how many write-ins are cast this month, you may never know whether they were for “Uncommitted,” “Mickey Mouse,” or “Chris Potter sux!” Totaling up write-ins can take weeks, and at least here, such ballots aren’t counted at all unless there is a mathematical reason to think they could affect the outcome.

Organizers said Wednesday that they would count toward their 40,000 goal any number of write-in votes in excess of the average number cast. Whether that’s a fair gauge of uncommitted support is up for debate. (I, for one, wouldn’t want to slight the coalition of people who think I suck.)

And more urgently for Democrats, there is also the question of what effect a protest vote cast in April will have on the general election in November.

Organizers of the campaign made clear that, as Joseph put it, “This uncommitted effort is strictly aimed at the Democratic presidential primary. This is not a campaign for the general election.” And Sergio Ceo of Reclaim Philadelphia affirmed that his group, at least, was “committed to defeating Trump in the general election.”

Still, he added, “We can’t do it alone.” And since “[p]rimaries are where we hold Democrats accountable … It’s up to [Biden] to win back voters’ trust.”

That may be harder for some members of the uncommitted coalition than others.

”We know many are calculating the effects of what a campaign like this might do if another candidate like Trump replaces Biden,” said Nada Abuasi of the Philadelphia Palestine Coalition. “We reject the notion of a lesser-than-two-evils, and the perspective that it is our duty as descendants of displaced, exiled, and genocided people to give power to a lesser [evil]. Evil is evil. Not one is less than the other.”

That’s a debatable premise. Even among those who regard what’s happening in Gaza as evil, some may feel a president who lets it happen is a lesser evil than a president who lets it happen and threatens to deport people who oppose the war and bar travelers from “terror-plagued countries.”

But political power is about leverage, and the first step is knowing where to place the lever. Democrats by and large don’t threaten mass deportations, and their coalition is far likelier to include Muslims and others threatened by Trump’s frequently nativist appeal. Ironically, perhaps, that’s precisely why Biden is the target of this pressure, even while Democrats fret that Trump is being let off the hook.

Of course, Jewish voters are also far likelier to be Democrats. And given that the Gaza war started after a brutal Hamas terror attack killed more than 1,000 people in Israel, many Jews object to activists who describe Israel’s attacks as “genocidal” — as several did during Wednesday’s press conference — and fear a broader rise in antisemitism. Among Democrats, meanwhile, there is also fear that even a symbolic “none of the above” vote in the spring may be an omen that disaffected voters will sit out November entirely.

Then again, if people can’t express their discontent with Biden’s foreign policy in a primary where his victory is assured, when can they?

As the uncommitted effort was getting underway in the state, I asked Congresswoman Summer Lee, a champion of progressives and frequent critic of Israel, about its potential impact. She said her top priority was “making sure that we’re turning out the full coalition that we’re going to need to defeat Trump in November. That work starts in our primary.”

But that didn’t mean demanding voters march in lockstep behind their nominee, she added: “It means that we need to make sure that we are addressing the issues and needs that they have, not dismissing them.”

For a party that has a strong base of support in both the Jewish and Muslim communities, there’s no easy political answer to the war in Gaza. People have died, and people are dying. The events on the ground are excruciating, and the debate about how to respond is painful.

For Democrats, the only consolation may be that they probably wouldn’t want to be in a party that pretends it is easy.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.