Why the ceasefire protest movement is good for democracy — and potentially for Democrats in November 

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Though the nominees are locked in, the stakes of the remaining 2024 presidential primary elections are still gigantic. In fact, the health and evolution of American democracy may hang in the balance. 

That’s because of this year’s protest vote phenomenon, as primary voters increasingly use their ballots to demand a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.  

In previous uncompetitive primaries where the front runner was a shoo-in, protest votes ran around 7 percent. This year, as it became apparent that more than one in 10 primary voters were casting protest votes for a ceasefire, the Biden administration “freaked out” and changed course. 

A majority of likely voters polled, including 76 percent of Democrats, have consistently called for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, but their demands went unheeded by U.S. policymakers. In fact, on Feb. 20, the U.S. vetoed a widely supported United Nations resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. 

Being deaf to voters’ foreign policy preferences is nothing new; it’s business as usual. The Constitution has no provision for national referenda on policy issues, and no formal mechanism to register voter preferences on policy issues in national elections, other than by voting for candidates. As democracy scholars have long observed, “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”  

But that pattern began to shift on Feb. 27, when over 100,000 protest voters in the Michigan presidential primary checked “uncommitted” on their ballots, so delegates at the national convention would be free to call for a ceasefire. A week later, the Biden administration began calling for a six-week ceasefire. Then, as March primaries continued to rack up larger-than-expected numbers of protest votes, the U.S. dropped its opposition to a U.N. ceasefire resolution, allowing it to pass. 

These are pyrrhic victories for Palestinians, as civilian casualties continue to mount in Gaza. On the other hand, protest voting may also be part of the reason why President Biden is disagreeing so publicly with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and why Israel’s planned ground assault on Rafah, with its massive refugee camp, hasn’t happened yet. It may also have played a part in developments adjacent to Gaza, including Israel scaling back its counterattack on Iran under pressure from the U.S. and other allies, and the U.S. considering sanctions on an IDF unit occupying the West Bank. Whereas Donald Trump vows lockstop support of Israel, Biden seems to be signaling willingness to pressure Israel to moderate its attacks in hopes of winning back protest voters’ support.  

These signals may or may not have saved lives in Gaza. But they’re important and could yet have far-reaching consequences because they demonstrate protest voters are accomplishing something exceedingly rare in modern American history: moving the needle on U.S. foreign policy. 

The shift began with the New Hampshire primary in January, when a small group of grassroots organizers mounted the Vote Ceasefire (VCF) campaign, which proved the concept that primary ballots could be used creatively to register demand for a ceasefire. Since Biden wasn’t officially on the ballot there, voters had to write candidates in anyway. From there it was an achievable step to get voters to write in “ceasefire” instead of the candidate’s name. Starting just a week before the primary and operating on a shoestring budget, VCF convinced 1,500 voters to do just that, and got state election officials to count and report those ballots.  

The idea that primary ballots could be used to convey demand for ceasefire struck a chord, and VCF got inquiries from groups across the country. Local groups in some states with write-in options on their ballots launched their own Vote Ceasefire campaigns. In other states, advocates found different techniques. The Listen to Michigan campaign got 13.2 percent of Democratic primary voters to mark “uncommitted” on their ballots. That stunning result spawned a national “uncommitted” campaign. Other variations emerged, like vote “uninstructed” in Wisconsin, or “leave it blank” in New York. 

What they all have in common is creative use of the primary ballot to demand a timely, permanent, meaningful ceasefire in Gaza. Taken together, they are converting the disaffection and sense of powerlessness many primary voters feel as their support at the polls is presumed while their demand for ceasefire is ignored to a sense of agency and power to make a difference. That represents a historic shift in U.S. politics, and perhaps in U.S. democracy.  

More needs to be done to translate demand for a ceasefire into action. Protest vote campaigns in upcoming primaries in Maryland and Oregon will keep pressuring Biden to secure a ceasefire — not during the Democratic National Convention in August, not in November, by which time tens of thousands more Palestinians may die, but now.  

While this poses some risks for the Biden campaign, it’s also an opportunity. Widespread protest voting is a sign of disaffection, but also of how voters hope to be heard. If Biden is responsive and effective in demanding ceasefire and preventing wider war, he’ll win the vast majority of them back. 

Either way, the ongoing protest vote movement is reinvigorating the 2024 presidential primaries. In terms of the race for the nomination, these elections are mostly alienating, irrelevant formalities. But as laboratories for showing how voter preferences can affect policy, they are now vital exercises in building a stronger, more direct American democracy. 

Alan Minsky is the executive director of Progressive Democrats of America. Stephen Kent is president of the public interest issue PR practice KentCom LLC. 

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