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Campaign urges people to vote 'uncommitted' unless Biden calls for ceasefire in Gaza

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Michigan's presidential primary is tomorrow. It's a state that President Biden won by less than three percentage points in 2020. And some Democratic voters who were part of Biden's winning coalition back then say they are unsure about him now. One big factor is Israel's war in Gaza in response to the October 7 attacks by Hamas. That war has now killed almost 30,000 Palestinians. And the issue is fueling a growing campaign powered by young voters to vote uncommitted in tomorrow's primary. NPR's Elena Moore reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I have an oat milk frap.

ELENA MOORE, BYLINE: At a coffee shop in Hamtramck, a small city with a large Arab and Muslim population near Detroit, state Representative Abraham Aiyash thinks back to his start in politics.

ABRAHAM AIYASH: Actually, it's a little up the street, the UAW hall where I started doing my work for the Obama campaign. So, you know...

MOORE: He was 13 then. Now he's the majority floor leader in the Michigan House. Aiyash, whose family is from Yemen, is one of several young elected leaders supporting the Listen to Michigan campaign, a pledge to vote uncommitted in the primary unless President Biden calls for an immediate and permanent cease-fire in Gaza and halts additional aid to Israel.

ALABAS FARHAT: You can't come out and enthusiastically support any candidate who's not listening to your concerns when you've done all the things that you were - you understood to believe were how you organize in a democracy.

MOORE: Twenty-four-year-old state Representative Alabas Farhat represents portions of Detroit and Dearborn, another prominent city that has a sizable Arab and Muslim population. To Farhat, who is Lebanese American, it's notable there are Gen Z and millennial elected officials in this fight.

FARHAT: We do not want to continue to be a part of a generation of voters, a generation of Americans who continues to hand off the country to the next generation at a state of war.

MOORE: And while elected leaders may be amplifying the movement, it's a campaign created and led by young organizers in the area.

LEXIS ZEIDAN: We're experiencing a revolution.

MOORE: That's 31-year-old Lexis Zeidan, a Palestinian American from Dearborn who is a spokeswoman and lead organizer for the Listen to Michigan campaign.

ZEIDAN: You're going to have your older generation that might still understand or believe in this two-party system, but you're also having younger voters that are trying so many different strategies and ways to just try. Like, what can we do to try to upend the current electoral system and let elected officials know that we're not settling for this anymore?

MOORE: The goal of the campaign is to get upwards of 10,000 write-in votes because that was the margin former President Trump won in 2016. It's much less, though, compared to Biden's margin in 2020, when he received 150,000 more votes. In a statement to NPR, a Biden campaign spokesperson stressed that the president is working hard to earn every vote in Michigan. But despite starting within the Arab community, organizers stress the movement is now multifaith, multirace and multigenerational. Twenty-four-year-old Makayla Stevens, who identifies as mixed race, and 23-year-old Paris Pittman, who's Black, sit together outside a bagel shop on a windy morning in Detroit.

MAKAYLA STEVENS: I think what's, like, important is just kind of letting our community know that they do have allies.

PARIS PITTMAN: 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.

MOORE: Stevens and Pittman are both considering voting uncommitted on Tuesday because of Gaza and a general dissatisfaction with Biden.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Vote uncommitted.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Vote uncommitted.

MOORE: At an uncommitted rally in Hamtramck just days before the election, 30-year-old Neda Mahmoud gets emotional thinking about why she's there.

NEDA MAHMOUD: I'm feeling, like, anguish over what we've been seeing online. And, like, it's just - you want to do anything you can, anything in your power. This is the minimum that we can do.

DIMA HESAN: Free, free Palestine.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Free, free Palestine.

HESAN: (Chanting) Free, free, free Palestine.

MOORE: That's the voice of 28-year-old Palestinian organizer Dima Hesan. Tuesday's election has an even added weight for her. It marks the first time she's able to vote since becoming a citizen.

HESAN: I feel powerful, you know, because 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, and I get to...

MOORE: Voters like Hesan have to vote by Tuesday, but they hope to wake up Wednesday having sent a strong message about their political power to the White House. Elena Moore, NPR News, Hamtramck, Mich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.