The “Uncommitted” Vote Isn’t Slowing Down

The count so far in Washington shows that another nearly 50,000 Democratic voters in a solid blue state opted to vote “uncommitted” last night. How long will the White House resist changing course on Israel’s war?

Attendees listen to speeches during an “Uncommitted for Joe Biden” primary election night watch party at Adonis restaurant on February 27, 2024 in Dearborn, Michigan. (Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

As antiwar activists continue to use the Democratic primary process to push for a cease-fire in Gaza, last night’s vote for the third straight week showed the depth of voter discontent with their standard-bearer’s handling of the war.

Washington State was the latest target of the “uncommitted” movement after successes across the country in previous weeks. With a fifth of the votes still to be counted, tens of thousands of the state’s Democratic voters made their displeasure with President Joe Biden known. “Uncommitted” took 7.5 percent of the vote last night in Washington, or 48,619 votes, quadrupling organizers’ initial target of twelve thousand, though falling short of the higher margins similar efforts had taken in Michigan, Minnesota, and North Carolina and failing to win a delegate so far.

Even so, the vote was a substantial rebuke to an incumbent president from his own party base in a solidly blue state, at a time when he faces no serious primary challenger. The anti-Biden vote looks more dramatic when including the vote counts of his two primary contenders, both of whom have taken more aggressive pro-cease-fire positions than the president, with 12.7 percent (85,811 voters) choosing one of the alternatives. The campaign only began contacting voters nine days before the primary, and many voters — including those whom phone bankers contacted in the days leading up to the vote and who were inclined to vote “uncommitted” — had already voted by mail, starting from February 23.

Washington’s primary was a caucus the last time a Democratic incumbent ran effectively unopposed, with Barack Obama ending up with 100 percent of the vote, offering a poor point of comparison. A better one may be when Donald Trump won the state’s GOP primary as the incumbent four years ago, taking home 98.4 percent of the vote against write-in candidates and taking no less than 97 percent in any single county in the state. By contrast, as of the time of writing, Biden’s win total was twelve points lower than Trump’s, and he won 90 percent or more of the vote in only three of the state’s thirty-nine counties.

In keeping with a trend seen across the primaries so far, counties with large numbers of college-age voters delivered the best results for “uncommitted” in the state. Whitman (home of Washington State University), Whatcom (home to Western Washington University and several other higher-education institutions), and King (the state’s most populous county and housing several private and public colleges) counties gave “uncommitted” 7, 10, and 10 percent of the vote, respectively — its best showings across the state.

In what could be warning signs for Democratic enthusiasm, several other counties the president won four years ago also delivered higher-than-average returns for “uncommitted.” That includes the populous counties of Snohomish (7 percent), Thurston (7 percent), Pierce (6 percent), and Clark (5 percent).

Five counties (Clallam, Grays Harbor, Mason, Cowlitz, and Pacific) flipped from Obama to Trump in 2016, and Biden won all but one of them in the 2020 Democratic primary — though only Clallam stuck for the general election, in which he won the state by a huge margin. Though “uncommitted” didn’t take more than 4 percent in any of them, the total anti-Biden vote crossed or hovered just under 10 percent in each one. In fact, in the thirteen counties that Biden carried in 2020, the broad anti-Biden vote hit 10 percent or higher in all but two (Clallam and Island), getting its highest total — or around 15 percent — in King, Whatcom, and Whitman counties.

With roughly a fifth of the votes still to be tallied, these results could look very different in a day’s time. That’s not guaranteed to be in “uncommitted”’s favor: in 2020, late-arriving ballots gave a boost to Republican candidates for the state legislature.

Though “uncommitted” was only an option for Democratic voters in Washington last night, antiwar campaigners attempted their own version in Georgia — the formerly red state that Biden succeeded in flipping four years ago by only twelve thousand votes, thanks to on-the-ground organizing by progressive groups.

The president won far more decisively last night than in other states targeted by pro-cease-fire forces, taking 95 percent of the vote — roughly on par with Obama and Trump’s 100 percent of the vote in 2012. With “uncommitted” not on the state’s ballot, activists spent the weeks leading up to the vote urging voters to “leave it blank” as a show of dissatisfaction over the Gaza war.

With most of the votes counted, the results have been decidedly more modest: blank ballots, recorded as “undervotes” in Georgia’s tallies, didn’t crack 4 percent in any of the key, Atlanta-surrounding counties where Democrats surged turnout to win the state four years ago. In some, like Richmond, Henry, and Clayton counties, it got less than a percentage point.

Ten more states with an “uncommitted” option on the ballot are yet to vote, including Kansas next Tuesday, and Connecticut and Rhode Island in April. Wisconsin, also set to vote April 2, is also being targeted by antiwar campaigners.

The protest movement has already shown subtle but unmistakable signs of influencing the administration. The Michigan vote led to rhetorical pivots by White House officials, including both the president and vice president, who took on a more empathetic tone toward Palestinian suffering in subsequent addresses and more emphatically championed the concept of a cease-fire, albeit a temporary one. The president is now embroiled in an increasingly public spat with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is threatening to invade Rafah regardless of the White House’s public unhappiness with the idea.

With further uncommitted successes following, the president has taken halting steps toward measures that pro-cease-fire voices have spent months calling for, namely conditioning or withholding further military to Israel or letting a pro-cease-fire resolution pass through the UN Security Council. Representative Ro Khanna has said that the president’s references to a cease-fire were a “direct result” of the Michigan vote, while former Democratic strategist Waleed Shahid reported a State Department aide telling him their approach to the war had changed at its quickest pace since that campaign kickstarted. Success, however, will only come if these campaigns spur more far-reaching steps toward ending the war.