Albany Agenda

Pro-Palestine activists urge primary voters to cast blank ballots to protest Biden

The state Board of Elections does not plan to include blank ballots in its unofficial election day results, which could undermine the protest.

Activists are urging Democratic voters in New York to submit blank presidential primary ballots in protest of President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza.

Activists are urging Democratic voters in New York to submit blank presidential primary ballots in protest of President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza. Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Some organizers in New York are trying to replicate the successes of the “uncommitted” campaigns from other early primary states in the Empire State to protest President Joe Biden’s continued support of Israel and call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Rather than urging Democrats to vote “uncommitted” over Biden, activists in New York have launched the “Leave it Blank” campaign, which asks Democratic primary voters to submit blank ballots instead of voting for Biden. But according to a spokesperson for the state Board of Elections, the agency does not plan to include the number of blank ballots cast in its unofficial election night results, which could blunt the impact of the protest vote.

Pro-Palestinian activists in several key swing states across the country have used the Democratic presidential primary to call for an immediate ceasefire and protest the ongoing war in Gaza that has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians – including over 12,000 children, according to estimates from the Healthy Ministry in Gaza. Although Biden is running without major opposition, voters in states like Michigan – where the national “uncommitted” movement began – chose the “uncommitted” option rather than cast a vote for the incumbent president. Already, “uncommitted” has secured a handful of delegates who will attend the Democratic National Convention. 

New York’s presidential primary ballot will not include an “uncommitted” option, however. That’s why organizers like Brittany Ramos DeBarros, a democratic socialist and former congressional candidate from Staten Island, have launched the Leave it Blank campaign, which urges Democrats to submit a blank ballot instead of casting a vote for Biden in the state’s April 2 Democratic presidential primary. “Voting blank is actually a pretty common political option around the world,” DeBarros told City & State. “So we see this as an opportunity to highlight the ways that as we are highlighting the ways that as we fight for a ceasefire abroad, we also need to be fighting for our democracy here in the United States.” 

However, a spokesperson for the state Board of Elections told City & State that the agency does not report blank ballots in the unofficial results for presidential primary races, only in the certified results that come out weeks later. Web archives show that to be true in the 2020 Democratic primary for president. Although other races, like the 2020 presidential general election and the 2022 Democratic primary for governor include blanks in unofficial election night results, the board spokesperson said that reporting for presidential primaries is different due to how delegates are assigned. Because delegates are won based on the percentage of votes a candidate receives compared to other candidates, the spokesperson said it’s important to show that data without additional information that would not be relevant, such as blank votes.

DeBarros criticized the fact that election officials do not plan to report that data on election night. “Given New Yorkers have a right to submit blank ballots as (a valid) choice, we think failure to report those votes explicitly on election night by either the NYS or NYC BOE is antithetical to the transparency necessary for a healthy democracy,” DeBarros said in a text message. The New York City Board of Elections traditionally does not report blank ballots on election night, and DeBarros said the agency told organizers that would not change for the presidential primary. But she said that state election officials originally told organizers that blanks would be reported on election night.

The New York activists’ strategy of encouraging blank ballots is relatively unique. Muslim and pro-Palestinian activists in Illinois, which like New York lacks an “uncommitted” option on the ballot, have urged voters to write in “Gaza” on the Democratic primary ballot. That would not work in New York, though, since the state doesn’t have a write-in option in the presidential primary.

Other states like Michigan and Minnesota that have garnered significant support for the “uncommitted” campaign have large Arab-American and Muslim communities, and Illinois organizers noted that the state has the largest per capita Muslim population in the country. New York, though home to some sizable Arab-American communities like in Brooklyn and Buffalo, is more notable for having the largest population of Jewish people in the world outside of Israel. They make up a powerful voting bloc that Democratic politicians often appeal to – and that has historically translated to staunch support for Israel. “I think  there's something that Michigan demonstrated to everyone, and we hope to demonstrate it in New York,” said Roxanne Mustafa, a Palestinian-American activist. “This isn't an exclusively Arab or Palestinian or Muslim message, it's a cross-sectional message.”

Over two dozen groups have signed onto the campaign, including Democratic Socialists of America factions in Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, Albany and Troy, Jewish Voice for Peace and the New York Muslim Action Network. “We believe that even though time is short, that we have enough time and enough people are engaged to get the word out widely,” said Leslie Cagan, an organizer with the Jewish Elders Affinity Group. The Leave it Blank campaign made its first social media post less than a week ago.

Support for military aid to Israel has fluctuated in New York since the country launched its war against Hamas in response to the Oct. 7 attack that killed nearly 1,200 people in Israel and led more than 200 people to be taken hostage. In October, 57% of those surveyed in a Siena College poll said they backed sending additional military and economic aid to Israel. That changed in January of this year, when another Siena College poll found that a slight plurality of New Yorkers opposed continued military aid to Israel, with 45% opposing and only 43% supporting the aid. New Yorkers remained tightly split in the most recent Siena polling from February, with 44% supporting aid and 43% opposing it.

But support for a permanent and immediate ceasefire has been gaining traction among Democrats, particularly in New York, as the fighting drags on and the death toll in Gaza continues to rise. “I think many Democrats in New York see this not as just the right thing to do in terms of making our first our voices heard on a humanitarian issue, but also an imperative to pressure the administration to listen to his face, given what's at stake in November,” DeBarros said.

Those stakes that have led some other Democrats worried about the impact of the protest votes. “Personally I am concerned about taking away any momentum from Biden,” Rep. Grace Meng, who will serve as a Biden surrogate in swing states during the election, said in a text. “The future of our country and our democracy is at stake in November – just 7 months away… The options are Biden or Trump.” State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs told City & State that he respects protest votes – at least during primary elections. “There’s a big difference between making a protest vote in a primary, where everyone is pretty certain of the outcome, and making a protest vote in a (general) election,” Jacobs said, alluding to former President Donald Trump. He said that Trump’s election would be catastrophic. “While everything else is important, nothing is more important than the continuation of American democracy and freedom. And I think that’s what’s on the ballot.”

Jacobs expressed confidence that Biden will win “overwhelmingly” in April, but he said that he is not surprised by the Leave it Blank campaign. “I’d be surprised if there wasn’t something like that, I just don’t think it’s going to be, in the long term, consequential in any fashion,” Jacobs said. He also confirmed that the party has no plans to cancel the primary, as it tried to do during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, before a lawsuit forced party officials to hold it that year.