The center of 'uncommitted' activism, young Michigan voters find political power The campaign to check "uncommitted" on the Michigan Democratic primary ballot has gained nationwide attention. At its center are the next generation of activists, leaders and voters.

On primary day, young Michigan voters are leading call to be 'uncommitted' to Biden

On primary day, young Michigan voters are leading call to be 'uncommitted' to Biden

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State Representative Abraham Aiyash speaks at a "Vote Uncommitted" rally on Feb. 25, 2024 in Hamtramck, Mich. Sylvia Jarrus for NPR hide caption

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State Representative Abraham Aiyash speaks at a "Vote Uncommitted" rally on Feb. 25, 2024 in Hamtramck, Mich.

Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

At a coffee shop in Hamtramck, Mich., a small city near Detroit, state Rep. Abraham Aiyash points out where he started in politics.

"It's a little up the street," he said, looking out the window. "The UAW hall where I started doing my work in Hamtramck for the Obama campaign."

At 13 years old, he was inspired by former President Barack Obama's 2008 run and knocked on a collective 10,000 doors for him.

Now, at 30, Aiyash is the majority floor leader in the Michigan House of Representatives, but there's no 2008 feeling when he looks ahead to this presidential election — in large part because of President Biden's handling of Israel's war in Gaza.

"Far from it," he said. "It's hard to see excitement in a presidential candidate when you see the death and destruction."

"And coupled with that," he added, "what appears to be a callous disregard for that carnage."

A movement led by young organizers and amplified by young leaders

The son of Yemeni immigrants, Aiyash is one of several young elected leaders supporting the Listen to Michigan campaign — a pledge to vote "uncommitted" in the primary unless Biden calls for an immediate and permanent cease-fire in Gaza and halts additional aid to Israel.

"We are hoping that this uncommitted movement will allow this administration to course correct and shift their policymaking and shift their strategy on the conflict in Gaza to hopefully save more lives," he explained. "This is why we are voting uncommitted. To save lives."

But as the conflict continues following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel killing 1,200, nearly 30,000 people in Gaza have been killed. Some Democratic voters who were part of Biden's 2020 winning coalition — including Muslim and Arab Americans, progressives and young voters — are wrestling with the best path forward.

Activists and community members in support of Palestine at a "Vote Uncommitted" rally on Feb. 25, 2024 in Hamtramck, Mich. Sylvia Jarrus for NPR hide caption

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Activists and community members in support of Palestine at a "Vote Uncommitted" rally on Feb. 25, 2024 in Hamtramck, Mich.

Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

Organizers behind the Listen to Michigan campaign are standing firm in their demands for Biden, despite the president announcing less than a day before the primary that a temporary cease-fire between Israel and Hamas could come by next week.

"Our hope is that a long-overdue ceasefire agreement is reached as soon as humanly possible," said spokesperson and Democratic strategist Abbas Alawieh in response to the news. In a statement to NPR, he added the campaign's goal is for the president to come out in support of a permanent stop to the fighting.

While elected leaders may be amplifying the movement, it's a campaign initially created by predominantly millennial and Gen Z organizers from the Dearborn area, a city near Detroit where more than half the population is of Middle Eastern or North African descent.

"We're experiencing a revolution," said Lexis Zeidan, a 31-year-old Palestinian American organizer who is a spokeswoman for the Listen to Michigan campaign.

"You're going to have your older generation that might still understand or believe in this two-party system," she said. "But you're also having younger voters that are trying so many different strategies and ways ... to upend the current electoral system and let elected officials know that we're not settling for this anymore."

"We're no longer going for the lesser of two evils," she added.

Lexis Zeidan, an activist and Palestine native speaks at a "Vote Uncommitted" rally on Feb. 25, 2024 in Hamtramck, Mich. Sylvia Jarrus for NPR hide caption

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Lexis Zeidan, an activist and Palestine native speaks at a "Vote Uncommitted" rally on Feb. 25, 2024 in Hamtramck, Mich.

Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

The goal of Listen to Michigan is to get more than 10,000 uncommitted votes — the margin that former President Donald Trump won by in the state back in 2016. That said, in 2020, Biden won Michigan by more than 150,000 votes.

Since launching the campaign at the beginning of February, organizers and volunteers have worked to get the word out.

Mara Matta sits at a high table in the back of a cafe in Dearborn, where she's monitoring another phone banking session for the campaign. Matta, who is 27 and Lebanese American, shies away from calls for Democrats to unite around Biden ahead of the primary.

"The nice thing about primaries is that this is how we set the agenda for the rest of the campaign," she said. "And to reduce this to election results is dehumanizing to the lives lost for the Palestinian people."

Over 40 elected state and local politicians, including a handful of younger lawmakers, have vowed to vote uncommitted.

"We do not want to continue to be a part of the generation of voters, a generation of Americans, who continue to hand off the country to the next generation at a state of war," said 24-year-old Lebanese American state Rep. Alabas Farhat, who represents portions of Detroit and Dearborn.

Biden allies look for a path forward

In a statement to NPR, a Biden campaign spokesperson stressed that "the [president] is working hard to earn every vote in Michigan," adding, "he is working tirelessly to create a just, lasting peace in the Middle East." But even for some elected officials backing Biden's reelection, the deep disappointment over his handling of the war in Gaza continues to be an issue.

Volunteers tallied uncommitted votes from activists and community members in support of Palestine at a "Vote Uncommitted" rally on Feb. 25, 2024 in Hamtramck, Mich. Sylvia Jarrus for NPR hide caption

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Volunteers tallied uncommitted votes from activists and community members in support of Palestine at a "Vote Uncommitted" rally on Feb. 25, 2024 in Hamtramck, Mich.

Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

Last week, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., traveled to the state to discuss the president's response — despite disagreeing with him on the war in Gaza.

Khanna has endorsed Biden's reelection campaign and is also advocating for a cease-fire. He also met with local Arab and Muslim leaders, including some who refused to meet with Biden campaign officials earlier this year.

After the trip, Khanna told NPR that Biden can't afford to lose any votes on account of his handling of the war.

"It would be a mistake to look at this as just affecting 200,000 voters. It's something that goes to the heart of young voters, progressive voters, voters of color and the energy that they're going to bring to the 2024 election."

Voters look ahead to November

Despite starting within the Arab community, organizers stress voting uncommitted is now a multi-faith, multi-race and multi-generational movement.

Makayla Stevens, 24, and Paris Pittman, 23, both serve on the NAACP Michigan Youth & College Division and are considering voting uncommitted on Tuesday because of Gaza and general dissatisfaction with Biden's first term.

Makayla Stevens, 24, and Paris Pittman, 23, both serve on the NAACP Michigan Youth & College Division. Elena Moore/NPR hide caption

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Makayla Stevens, 24, and Paris Pittman, 23, both serve on the NAACP Michigan Youth & College Division.

Elena Moore/NPR

"I think what's important is just kind of letting that community know that they do have allies," said Stevens, who identifies as mixed race and half Black.

"I wouldn't say, like, we're just the same, but we have a lot of common things, so we need to be there for each other because this could be us too. This was us," added Pittman, who is 23 and identifies as Black.

Bianca Garcia, 26, is Jewish and Latina. She made up her mind about her vote Tuesday. She's voting uncommitted, but it's a difficult choice as she looks to the general.

"I know that Trump being in office is going to be 10 times worse. He has a track record unlike Biden, Biden never did anything like the Muslim ban. I'm almost cornered into having to [vote Biden] but I want to feel more resolved in that vote," she said.

Nada Mahmoud and Mariah Hall, of Hamtramck in support of Palestine at a "Vote Uncommitted" rally on Feb. 25, 2024 in Hamtramck, Mich. Sylvia Jarrus for NPR hide caption

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Nada Mahmoud and Mariah Hall, of Hamtramck in support of Palestine at a "Vote Uncommitted" rally on Feb. 25, 2024 in Hamtramck, Mich.

Sylvia Jarrus for NPR

At a rally in Hamtramck, just days before the election, 30-year-old Nada Mahmoud gets emotional thinking about why she is there.

"I'm feeling anguish over what we've been seeing online," she said, standing beside her friends and child. "You want to do anything you can, anything in your power. This is the minimum that we can do."

Steps away is 28-year-old Palestinian organizer Dima Alhesan.

Tuesday's election has an added weight for her. It marks the first time she's able to vote since becoming a citizen.

"I feel powerful," she said. "My whole life I got to watch what's happening and have no say in it. And this is the first time that I get to have a say."

Dima Alhesan, 28-year-old Palestinian organizer, at a "Vote Uncommitted" rally on Feb. 25, 2024 in Hamtramck, Mich. Sylvia Jarrus for NPR hide caption

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Dima Alhesan, 28-year-old Palestinian organizer, at a "Vote Uncommitted" rally on Feb. 25, 2024 in Hamtramck, Mich.

Sylvia Jarrus for NPR