Organizers scramble to induce ‘uncommitted’ votes in Minnesota presidential primary

People talk in a mosque
Activist Jaylani Hussein with Uncommitted Minnesota encourages hundreds at the Karmel Mosque gathered for prayer Friday afternoon to vote "uncommitted" on Minnesota's March 5 DFL primary.
Clay Masters | MPR News

After Friday prayers at the Karmel Mall Mosque, the hundreds at the Minneapolis Islamic center got a parting pitch from a fellow Muslim speaking in Somali: Those eligible should vote in Tuesday’s presidential primary.

But not for a candidate. Mark the “uncommitted” option on the Democratic ballot, they were told.

Similar appeals were being made at other mosques in Minnesota and will be delivered throughout the weekend at campaign-style events and through phone-banking brigades.

The goal is to deliver a ballot-box rebuke to President Joe Biden, who has drawn protest from people who don’t think his administration is doing enough to halt Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. The bombing and fighting has been intense since a Hamas terror attack on Israel in October led to instant retaliation by a key U.S. ally. Calls by anti-war activists for a lasting cease-fire haven’t led to one.

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On Tuesday in Michigan, more than 100,000 Democratic voters opted for “uncommitted” on their ballots. Biden won the Democratic primary comfortably with more than 618,000 votes, but the uncommitted showing was noteworthy and will give that cause at least two delegates to the party’s national convention this summer in Chicago.

The Associated Press reported that Biden was beaten by “uncommitted” in both Dearborn and Hamtramck — two places where Arab Americans make up close to half the population. 

It has raised concern in Democratic circles that continued discontent would be damaging to the incumbent’s November prospects in a swing state if those “uncommitted” voters don’t return to Biden’s fold or stay home.

Minnesota organizers, including Asma Mohammed, underscored the challenge in a conference call this week aimed at drumming up volunteer help for a get-out-the-vote campaign..

“Y’all Michigan had three weeks. Minnesota now has four and a half days,” she said.

“If you have not signed up for a shift, sign up for two. If you’ve signed up, sign up for another. We need you in this moment. We need every single person making calls from nine to nine, every single day until the polls close.”

If they are worried, Minnesota Democratic Party leaders aren’t showing it. They aren’t mobilizing against the uncommitted push.

DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said encouraging participation in the primary is his first goal. Besides Biden there are several other candidates, a write-in line and the uncommitted option.

“I will tell you that (the uncommitted) vote was relatively small in Michigan last week. I expect it to be even smaller here in Minnesota next Tuesday,” Martin said on MPR’s Politics Friday show. “If you look at the primary results throughout the country, the overwhelming of Democratic primary voters already are behind our president. He will be our nominee for sure. But it’s an important message obviously that’s being sent and the president is listening.”

Biden has hinted at a breakthrough he expects to come as soon as next week, but Israeli and Hamas leaders haven’t shared in that optimism.

Martin said he anticipates those who check that box will come around to Biden in the fall with the stakes as high as they are with former President Donald Trump likely to be the Republican nominee.

“I am absolutely convinced when it becomes a choice between those two candidates that not only will those people who voted uncommitted, come back and support Joe Biden, but the independent voters — much like they did in 2020 — will swing our way,” Martin said. “That’s not what this race is about next Tuesday for either party. It’s really about selecting our nominee. And so I don’t think you can read too much into those results.”

Abou Amara, who has worked on past DFL campaigns, told Minnesota Now this week that the strategy to withhold votes from the incumbent has been used effectively in the past and could work now.

“This is actually the time to do it. The Democratic primaries and the Republican primaries are the moment to exercise political power and to have your voice heard,” Amara said. “And  you’re seeing the Biden administration continue to respond, to say I have to listen to various aspects of my coalition.”

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer contributed to this report.