Putting Palestine on the Ballot: An Interview with Uncommitted New Jersey Organizers

In New Jersey, which has one of the highest Muslim populations of any state in the country, DSA has taken the lead on challenging Joe Biden in the June 4 Democratic primary, organizing an slate of uncommitted delegates that will appear on the ballot under the slogan “Justice for Palestine, Permanent Ceasefire Now.” Unlike most states, voters will vote directly for a slate of delegates, meaning that New Jersey DSA will also have a shot at sending socialists and Palestine solidarity organizers to the Democratic National Convention to continue the fight in Chicago.

Annie West of River Valley DSA spoke with Suraj Patel and Fatima Mughal, two Central New Jersey DSA members and Vote Uncommitted New Jersey organizers, to learn about the fight for Palestine at the ballot box and their struggle against the Democratic Party.

Annie: Can you tell us the story of Vote Uncommitted New Jersey from the beginning?

Suraj: After seeing the results in Michigan, many of us were blown away by the vote and excited about the possibilities in our state. After doing some research, we figured out we were running on some very tight deadlines. Unlike many states, there is no automatic “uncommitted” option in the [New Jersey] primary. Instead, we needed to petition to make the ballot. We had about 5 days to find delegates to apply to run, followed by less than 3 weeks to collect 100 signatures from registered Democrats in each of New Jersey’s 20 delegate districts. Amazingly, we ran over 50 delegates, collected over 3,600 signatures and made the ballot in New Jersey! Our slates will also appear on the ballot with the slogan “Justice For Palestine, Permanent Ceasefire Now,” meaning there is no ambiguity about what our campaign is about.

We never would’ve been able to get there without close collaboration between all three New Jersey DSA chapters. We started being more intentional about working together across the state in our labor work, fundraising for Labor Notes together, and collaborating on strike solidarity during the Rutgers University strike and the Robert Wood Johnson nurses strike. Many of our chapter leaders got to know each other during the DSA National Convention, and those internal relationships were essential in getting the campaign off the ground. But ultimately, what made this campaign work was the incredible dedication of our members from all corners of the state, collecting signatures, pulling all-nighters, calling mosques, tabling, and inspiring each other every day to stand up for Palestine.

Annie: Muslim and Arab communities have played a key role in building Uncommitted campaigns across the country, notably defeating Joe Biden with a 57% vote for Uncommitted in Dearborn, Mich. How have Muslim organizers played a role in New Jersey Uncommitted, and what kind of response have you seen from broader Muslim communities?

Fatima: We have some Muslim comrades, like myself, in our DSA chapters who have helped connect us to the Muslim communities here in NJ through our networks. This campaign started around the start of Ramadan so we were able to connect to many Muslims through visiting mosques. As Muslims, we were able to share the significance of this month and how many Muslims attend evening prayers at their mosques after breaking their fasts. I actually went with my father to some of our local mosques, who helped bring over folks to come learn about the campaign and sign our petitions. It was interesting to see the almost visceral reaction from most people when I asked if they were registered Democrats. Many shared that they had already switched to Independent and most shared their disgust with Biden and the Democrats in general, who have either not commented on what’s happening in Palestine or have straight up voiced support for what Israel is doing, like one of our local representatives, Josh Gottheimer. Once we explained that we too were angry with Biden, and that the Uncommitted vote was a way to send a message directly to him, they were very interested. A few were aware of what had happened in Michigan and were happy that we were working to bring that option to New Jerseyans. 

We are still at the initial stages of the campaign, and are also working to build a larger coalition of groups, many of which are local Muslim groups. However, one challenge has been legal hurdles of mosques being 501c3s and unable to endorse or support a political campaign.

Annie: DSA’s For Our Rights platform for the 2024 election states that “relying on the Democratic Party to lead the fight against the Republican Party and the right isn’t working. An independent path, rooted in the working-class majority and building towards an independent workers’ political party, is necessary.” How does the Uncommitted campaign build toward an independent party?

Suraj: From the beginning, we saw this as a campaign aligned with our socialist values. We were under no illusions that we would be trying to “save Biden’s presidency” or change the Democratic party from within. Instead, what we saw was a mass movement of ordinary people disgusted by the ongoing genocide in Palestine and Biden’s unconditional support for Israel. Our role as socialists in this kind of political moment is nothing new—we educate, agitate, and organize. We put forward a sharp and pointed critique of Biden and the capitalist status quo in order to give political coherence and collective voice to this movement, and to fill a void in politics that would otherwise leave people disillusioned and disengaged. As socialists, we tell the truth—that imperialist violence and the daily struggles of capitalism start at the foundations of our political system, and that in order to win a new democratic and socialist society, the working class needs a party of our own. 

It’s not enough to just say this though—we need to develop the skills, structures, and membership to contest for power at every level, from organizing apartment buildings and workplaces to winning seats in the halls of Congress. What we are doing in New Jersey, deep community organizing, statewide collaboration, leadership development, I believe is the raw material for a real independent full-throated socialist party, with deep roots in labor, immigrant communities, and the multiracial working class, that can go toe to toe with the Democrats and the Republicans in our state.

Annie: Similarly, it’s old news for socialists that the Democratic Party is not a democracy, often using elaborate bureaucratic machinery to block left-wing candidates and initiatives. What challenges did you face getting on the ballot?

Suraj: New Jersey is one of the most political machine-driven states in the country. Unlike many other states, we had to petition for an uncommitted option by running delegates directly. However, unlike presidential candidates, who need to collect 2,000 signatures statewide to get on the ballot, we had no option to petition at-large. We had to petition by district. This meant we needed to collect signatures all over the state—a higher bar than anyone else on the ballot, and a major early structure test for our campaign. Another strict rule we needed to follow was the Democratic Party’s absurd and likely illegal gender quota which, unbelievably, forced us to disqualify several delegates because we ran too many women!

On March 29, a federal judge ruled New Jersey’s “party line” primary system illegal, and that it must switch to traditional “office block” style ballots used by every other state. The party-line system gave favorable ballot placement, and a major statistical advantage, to candidates endorsed by the county parties, making it much harder for challengers to break through. We welcome the end of this archaic system, but just because the line is gone doesn’t mean the machines have gone away. 

We’ve seen party bosses attempt to suppress our campaign even under the new ballot system, by using dirty tricks like minimizing the font size of “uncommitted” on the ballot and refusing to include us in the ballot positioning draw in some counties. We knew we were going to face challenges like this, and we were prepared—starting a grassroots campaign to pressure county clerks, confronting the governor about it on the radio, and using it as a way to agitate against the so-called “Democratic” Party. We’re still in the process of addressing these challenges, but we’ve done our homework and we aren’t about to let the Democrats push Palestine off the ballot.

Annie: All three New Jersey DSA chapters are also embarking on a campaign to expand municipal voting rights to non-citizens, including undocumented residents. How does the Uncommitted campaign relate to non-citizen voting?

Suraj: We absolutely see these issues as interconnected. We’re fighting against an apartheid system in Israel, but here at home immigrants are treated by the state as a subordinate population to be managed. Immigrants are exploited for their labor but don’t enjoy basic political rights, and working class immigrant neighborhoods are regularly brutalized by ICE and police. Unsurprisingly, mainstream Democrats are doing little for noncitizens. In Edison, one of the most diverse towns in the country, we showed up to protest after Democratic mayor [Sam] Joshi made racist comments about migrants, and even used his own immigrant family background to justify it. Democrats across the country who paid lip service to opposing Trump’s draconian immigration policies are now parroting Fox News rhetoric about immigration in a cynical attempt to boost their own careers. Our message in this political climate is clear—only socialists are consistent in fighting for the political freedoms of the entire international working class.

Annie: How can comrades outside New Jersey support the campaign?

Fatima: One especially uplifting aspect of this campaign has been the solidarity and resource sharing that we have received from campaigns in other states, especially organizers from Wisconsin and Michigan. They have met with us to share advice, resources, campaign ideas, and even done media training for our members. Our members have also tried to pay it forward by helping other states that have earlier primaries do phone banking. These campaigns are a lot of work, so we would love to have anyone who is interested reach out to us at [email protected]! We could use help with some of the behind the scenes work, like data collection and input, that can be done from anywhere. We also would love to have more folks following, interacting with, and sharing our social media posts! That will help the campaign grow and reach a wider audience, so please follow us @uncommittednj on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook if you have them!

Annie: What advice do you have for organizers first stepping into DSA-backed campaigns similar to Uncommitted New Jersey?

Fatima: After Michigan’s exciting primary, we had a few members come together to discuss whether we thought it was possible to bring the Uncommitted campaign to NJ. We weren’t sure that we had the expertise and capacity to do it, but we were hopeful and thought that we should at least try! So many of us have been speaking out, attending protests, and bird-dogging politicians, but had felt like it wasn’t getting us anywhere. So when we saw Kamala Harris say the word “ceasefire” the day after the Michigan primary, it gave us hope that the Uncommitted campaign would be another avenue to show our disgust with this administration’s support for the genocide of the Palestinians. While these campaigns do take a lot of time and energy, if you are able to find a passionate and dedicated group of people, it is exciting and uplifting work at a time when many of us are feeling helpless. 

In New Jersey, we’ve faced a lot of hurdles trying to navigate the archaic, complicated, and confusing election process, yet we have been able to overcome every single one because of the dedication, creativity, and determination of our comrades. When we first began, we kept saying we were building the plane while flying it, because we really had taken a leap of faith in the work and each other. Our campaign is made up of a diverse group of people across all backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, ages, and gender identities, that was formed because of our desire for an end to this genocide and the liberation of Palestine. I absolutely encourage everyone to bring the campaign to your state! For us, it has brought together an incredible group of comrades that I am constantly in awe of.

New Jersey’s June 4 primary is open to registered Democrats. Previously unaffiliated voters can affiliate the day of the election.