Analysis: Over 100,000 Michigan primary votes were ‘uncommitted.’ What does that mean?


Although President Biden won Tuesday’s Democratic presidential primary in Michigan, the win was trailed by a sign of discontent in the key swing state: more than 100,000 of Democratic presidential votes cast as “uncommitted.” A campaign backed by some prominent state and local lawmakers, including Palestinian American congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), has encouraged voters to protest Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza by voting uncommitted in hopes of pushing him to reassess his stance ahead of the general election in November. Michigan has a large Arab American population.

More than 100,900 Democratic presidential primary voters (13.3 percent) were uncommitted after 98 percent of the votes had been counted early Wednesday. In the last two presidential elections, the number of uncommitted Democratic primary votes in Michigan has hovered around 20,000, and not passed 2 percent of the total vote. Here’s what to know.

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What are uncommitted votes?

In Michigan’s primary, Democratic and Republican party ballots give voters the option to select “uncommitted,” which means they are placing a party vote but are not currently supporting any of the candidates listed.

In the last two presidential elections, uncommitted voters have represented a fraction of Democratic primary voters in Michigan – 1.2 percent in 2020 and 1.79 percent in 2016, according to state data. An exception is 2008, when Hillary Clinton was the only major Democratic presidential candidate to appear on the primary ballot in Michigan and supporters of other candidates, including Barack Obama, used the same strategy to oppose her. Some 40 percent of Democratic primary voters voted uncommitted that year. During Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, 20,833 Democratic primary voters (10.69 percent) voted uncommitted.

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Which other states have uncommitted votes?

At least a handful of states offer residents the option of voting uncommitted. Other than Michigan, these states include Kentucky, Maryland, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Washington. Colorado offers voters the option to vote for a “noncommitted delegate” in the Democratic Party presidential primary.

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Why do uncommitted votes matter?

The number of uncommitted votes indicates how many core constituents of a certain party could be reluctant about voting for their party’s candidate in the general election. According to state data, if there are enough uncommitted votes, the party may send delegates to the national nominating convention who are also uncommitted.

It is not expected to have an impact on Biden’s nomination, however, it reflects dissatisfaction among some would-be Biden voters and could prove a warning sign for his campaign. In a video statement after voting for uncommitted, Tlaib said the vote “is the way we can use our democracy to say, ‘Listen, listen to Michigan.’”

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Why are people in Michigan voting uncommitted?

A campaign for “voting uncommitted,” led by activists and lawmakers opposed to Biden’s support of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, saw success Tuesday evening and probably played a role in the uptick of such votes. A campaign called Listen to Michigan, which led the push, said the idea was to demonstrate that voters who are against the Biden administration’s handling of the Israel-Gaza war make up Biden’s margin of victory in the state, where Donald Trump won by less than 11,000 votes in 2016. Biden won in 2020 by just more than 150,000 votes.

Listen to Michigan released a statement Tuesday celebrating the success of the movement, which the group’s campaign manager, Layla Elabed, said “emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations.”

In Dearborn, Mich., described as the Arab capital of North America, more than 74 percent of Democratic primary voters voted uncommitted, according to initial results. Citing that number, Abed Ayoub, national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, wrote on social media: “It’s not business as usual in Michigan. The experts and DC insiders are once again wrong.”

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What could uncommitted votes mean for Biden?

For Biden, the uncommitted vote in Michigan serves as an alarm bell for his prospects in this year’s presidential election. The growing discontent among a group of voters who might normally have voted for Biden means these voters may choose not to vote at all in November, or to vote for a different candidate. In Michigan, a purple state, that could help tip the balance toward the Republican Party candidate.

During an interview with Politico, Elabed did not rule out the possibility that their efforts to persuade more voters to vote uncommitted this week may weaken Biden in the general election.

“We are trying to save lives right now. This is beyond electoral politics,” she said.

Although she and her colleagues “know that Trump is not a friend,” should Trump win, “it is going to be on the Biden administration, Biden himself and the Democratic Party to answer to why they literally handed the White House to Trump,” Elabed said.

In a statement, Biden struck an optimistic tone and did not mention the uncommitted votes. “Four years ago, it was Michigan’s diverse coalition that came together to reject Donald Trump’s MAGA extremism and sent me and Kamala to the White House,” he said, thanking all who voted.



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