President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Oct. 18, 2023. Biden's refusal to pressure Israel more has angered progressives.
MANCHESTER, N.H. ― A group of progressive activists have launched a last-minute effort to protest President Joe Biden’s lockstep support of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, encouraging voters to write in “cease-fire” on their New Hampshire presidential primary ballots.
The effort adds the most divisive issue in Democratic politics to an already confusing stew in Tuesday’s Democratic primary in New Hampshire, which will award no convention delegates, but has taken on symbolic importance. Biden is not officially on the ballot, but his only remotely serious challenger, Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), has staked his campaign’s viability on getting more than 20% in the Granite State.
More than anything, however, the ultimate strength of the “cease-fire” campaign could provide an early look at one of the most important questions in Democratic politics: How much are voters willing to prioritize ending the conflict, and how wide the wedge between Biden and left-wing voters who backed him four years ago has become.
Arab Americans and progressive voters, in particular, fault Biden for his refusal to leverage U.S. military aid to Israel to halt a war that they see as criminal. The Israeli aerial bombardment and ground operation have killed more than 25,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children; displaced 85% of the Gaza Strip’s population; and generated catastrophic shortages of food, water and medical care.
“There is that one spot at the bottom [of the ballot] that will hopefully send a statement to President Biden, to the Democratic Party, to our Democratic elected officials that we really are fed up. The killing must stop,” said Bill Maddocks, a longtime activist with New Hampshire Peace Action from Amherst, New Hampshire. “The doors must open for negotiations and for rebuilding, and for an end to the horrible IDF attacks on the people of Gaza and the West Bank.”
In New Hampshire, a group of progressive activists have launched a last-minute effort to get voters sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians to write in the word “cease-fire” in the presidential primary. The idea is that when the number of ballots is tallied, politicians will see how many voters have used the primary to express their opposition to continued U.S. support for Israel’s war. To that end, while the organizers say it is OK to use the Republican primary to write in “cease-fire,” they are encouraging people to do so in the Democratic primary where they believe the prospects for accumulating a critical mass of votes is greatest.
In a few short weeks, proponents of writing in “cease-fire” in the New Hampshire primaries have organized a group, Vote Ceasefire New Hampshire, to promote their efforts. The group has a functioning website, and organizers have chipped in their own money to print 1,500 yard signs and distribute them.
The idea for a “cease-fire” write-in campaign originated with Andru Volinsky, a progressive attorney and former member of the powerful Executive Council of New Hampshire, who mounted an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2020.
Volinsky wrote a letter to the editor of the Concord Monitor on Dec. 13, 2023, announcing his plans to write in “cease-fire.”
“I would like President Biden to do well in the general election,” he wrote. “My concern is with Israel’s annihilation of Palestinians in Gaza and this administration’s support of that misguided and monstrous effort.”
“The U.S. is not doing all it can to end the killing of innocent civilians and the complete destruction of hospitals and other infrastructure,” Volinsky continued. “The level of destruction makes me wonder if this is about chasing terrorists or making Gaza unlivable.”
The letter piqued the interest of Volinsky’s fellow peace activists in the Granite State, who joined him in putting the organizing effort together.
“I first watched in horror as the October 7 attack occurred and hostages were taken, but quickly saw that the Israeli response was designed, intended to annihilate the people of Gaza,” Volinsky, an East Concord resident, told HuffPost. “And I did not think that the Biden administration, which I think does well on a number of fronts, was doing enough to pressure Netanyahu and his government to refrain from destroying Gaza.”
The initiative takes place in the context of one of the most unusual Democratic primaries in New Hampshire’s history.
At Biden’s direction, the Democratic National Committee replaced New Hampshire with South Carolina as the first primary election in the party’s presidential nominating process. When New Hampshire’s state government refused to change the state law requiring its presidential primaries to be first in the nation, the DNC stripped the state of its convention delegates, and Biden refused to appear on the ballot in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
The New Hampshire presidential primary gives New Hampshire voters some level of responsibility and some level of agency to make their concerns known through their vote.Andru Volinsky, former member of the New Hampshire Executive Council
But recognizing that Biden would still need representation in the state’s elections, a group of New Hampshire Democrats have organized a well-funded campaign to get registered Democrats and independents to write in his name on the ballot. Phillips is the most credible Democrat challenging Biden in New Hampshire, where he hopes a strong performance will invigorate the rest of his campaign.
Phillips’ chances of victory over Biden are dim. And the likelihood of “cease-fire” getting as many votes as Phillips appears to be even dimmer.
Still, advocates for a cease-fire in Gaza see an opening in the chaotic Democratic primary.
“The New Hampshire presidential primary gives New Hampshire voters some level of responsibility and some level of agency to make their concerns known through their vote,” Volinsky said.
The increased attention on write-in votes may also work to these activists’ advantage.
“Because there’s this large write-in Biden campaign in New Hampshire, the theory is that they’re going to be paying attention to the write-in portion of the ballot in a way that they don’t always,” said Molly Brennan, a stage actor, and Actors Equity union organizer who grew up in New Hampshire and recently returned to the state.
The Democratic Majority for Israel, a pro-Israel super PAC, is, by contrast, urging its allies in New Hampshire to write in Biden as a show of support for the president’s pro-Israel policies. The group recently touted a Boston Globe poll showing that 48% of likely New Hampshire voters sympathize with Israel, compared to 16% who sympathize with the Palestinians.
There was some concern initially that the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office might not tally all of the write-in votes with the word “cease-fire,” since it is not the name of an individual person.
Anna Sventek, a spokesperson for the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office, told the nonprofit outlet InDepth New Hampshire, that all of the “cease-fire” write-in votes would be counted, but that they would be categorized as “Scatter,” a technical term for miscellaneous votes.
HuffPost reached out to Sventek for clarity on the matter. When asked by email whether there would be an exact tally of the “cease-fire” write-in votes, Sventek replied, “Exactly.”
“As it’s an organized campaign, we will tally the results in a separate column,” she added.
A key reason why New Hampshire’s pro-Palestine activists feel the need to get creative is that they say that their Democratic elected officials have disregarded more conventional forms of feedback. Brennan, for example, said that she regularly makes her views on the U.S.-backed Israeli war known in phone calls to the state’s Democratic members of the U.S. House and Senate, but has not received any responses.
“We’ve seen all of these campaigns come up. And it’s been largely ignored,” she said of public demonstrations for a cease-fire. “This is another way to tell our public servants that we support a cease-fire. We do not support the way that the United States is involved in Gaza.”
U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) told HuffPost on Monday that while he is not calling for a cease-fire, he welcomes the additional enthusiasm about participating in the state’s Democratic primaries. (Although there are no hard statistics, the vast majority of the cease-fire activists plan to write in “cease-fire” in the Democratic, rather than Republican primary.)
“We want people to turn out, and whatever they do on Tuesday, we’ll be able to read the tea leaves Tuesday night,” he said. “But certainly this is a state where everyone’s welcome. We’ve got diverse points of view.”
For its part, Vote Ceasefire New Hampshire has found ways to sidestep the more polarizing questions gripping the pro-Palestine movement. New Hampshirites active in the write-in effort vary in their ideas about the best ways to deliver justice for Palestinians ― from disagreements about the applicability of the term “genocide” to what Israel is doing, to divergent views on whether a two-state solution or a one-state solution is more appropriate, according to Maddocks.
The activists even disagree about whether Biden’s support for the Israeli invasion disqualifies him for reelection. Maddocks and Volinsky plan to vote for Biden despite his handling of the war, but Brennan, who emphasized that she was speaking in her personal capacity, does not.
“At this point, my friends in this country who have lost family members in Gaza ― how am I going to look at them and vote for this man who fully supported that loss of life?” asked Brennan, who voted for Biden in 2020.
“Me, and others like myself were told four years ago, ‘Well, he’s not the best, but he’s the lesser evil, ya gotta do it,’ which is the same campaign they’re using now,” she added. “At this point, I’m not observing a lesser evil.”