It’s the season of the presidential protest vote. On Tuesday, a coalition of progressive organizers gathered in Dearborn to launch Listen to Michigan, an effort to win votes for the “uncommitted” line on the Feb. 27 Democratic ballot. Muslim leaders, Arab-American mayors, and Jewish Voices for Peace planned to spend three weeks telling voters to show up, but oppose Joe Biden. That, they said, would tell the president just how many votes he’d lose, in a can’t-lose state, if he did not change course and bring about a ceasefire in Gaza.
Layla Elabed is the campaign’s manager — and the sister of Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American member of the House. (Tlaib is not involved in the campaign, though Elabed called her “one of the few electeds at her level that we can trust.”) Elabed talked with Americana about the effort, and this is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Americana: How did this campaign get started, and when?
Layla Elabed: I can tell you exactly when it was: The 27th of January. People were throwing around this idea, talking to community leaders, calling their contacts – organizers, grassroots folks. These are folks that are dug in on other issues pertaining to Michigan voters, be it affordable housing, taking down corporate utility companies, water issues, and electoral politics.
We jumped on a zoom call and talked about the organizing efforts that were done in 2008, when Obama didn’t make the ballot for the Michigan primaries. His campaign was able to mobilize young and black voters to vote uncommitted, as a rejection of Hillary Clinton. We knew, this time, it would be an organic effort and spread like wildfire, because folks were already talking about writing in “ceasefire” or “free Palestine.” And our core team is making moves every day. We had our first phone bank last night.
Americana: January 27 was shortly after the New Hampshire primary; there, you had a campaign urging people to write in “ceasefire” as a war protest. Very few people did. What did you learn from that?
Layla Elabed: I think that advantage that we have here in Michigan, compared to the efforts in New Hampshire, is that we have an uncommitted bubble on our Democratic ballot. Historically, Arab Americans and Muslim Americans here have flexed their power through the Democratic Party, and we’re using a list of likely Democratic voters who’ve voted in past primaries. We’re calling people, texting people, and buying digital ads. And even though this is a multi-faith, multi-generational campaign, we are centering our Muslim and Arab brothers and sisters because of how this has affected them — me included. I’m Palestinian. I still have family in Palestine, in the West Bank.
Americana: What would victory look like? We’re talking right after “none of the above” beat Nikki Haley in Nevada, which surprised some people and made news. Do you need to beat Biden? To get some share of the vote?
Layla Elabed: We’re really trying to mobilize 80% of the Democratic voters who support a ceasefire.
Americana: Which is most Democrats.
Layla Elabed: Right. And we already feel that we’re winning. The Biden administration is coming to talk to folks in Michigan, even after getting booted out last week. We’re just trying to get to a threshold of at least 15% of the vote, or 10,000 votes, which in 2016 was the margin for Trump.
Americana: I’ve talked to people, and I’m sure you have too, who are just done with Biden over this issue. If the war ended today, nobody’s bringing back 30,000 dead people. Are you reaching voters who may actually vote for Biden, or people who’ll cast this vote and move on?
Layla Elabed: I can’t say what that would look like, because right now we are focused on the primary. Many Michiganders have lost friends and family in Gaza. This is due to the funding that President Biden gives unconditionally to Israel. The Muslim and Arab American community really showed up for Biden, and to have him turn his back on his base was very telling. The bare minimum that we can ask for is a permanent ceasefire and to reevaluate the United States and the Biden administration’s policy on military funding to Israel. Without those two things we can’t even talk about the possibility of supporting President Biden in the November elections.
Americana: In New Hampshire, I asked Rep. Ro Khanna — who just voted against additional Israel aid — why exactly a Democrat who wants to protest Biden’s policy shouldn’t write-in “ceasefire.” His argument, basically, was that weakening Biden with a protest vote would help Trump; right now, you want a strong Biden to negotiate with Israel. Why is he wrong?
Layla Elabed: We’re well aware that Trump is not our friend. He enacted the Muslim ban. He’s promised that he would reenact it once he gets back into office. But there’s a long time between now and November for Biden to change his policies and earn support back from voters.
But time is running out. Biden funding Netanyahu’s government makes a mockery of what he claimed when he took office, that he would fight authoritarianism and support democracy. That he was for humanitarian politics. If he’s not going to listen to us, it won’t be the voters that hand over the White House to Trump. It will be Biden and his administration.