With ‘No Preference’ Ballots, Montana Voters Express Discontent in Presidential Primaries

Around 9% of Montana voters selected “no preference” in Democratic and Republican presidential primaries last week. Pro-Palestinian advocacy group Montana for Palestine claimed the result as a victory after urging progressives to cast a protest vote against the president.

By Denali Sagner
Polling place at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell on June 4, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Nine percent of Montana voters cast a “no preference” ballot in both the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries on June 4, signaling dissatisfaction with the frontrunners for U.S. president ahead of a competitive general election.

In the Democratic presidential primary, 9,141 voters, or 9%, cast a “no preference” vote, with President Joe Biden being the only candidate on the ballot. In the Republican primary, 16,381 voters, also 9%, selected “no preference,” with former President Donald Trump as the ballot’s only candidate.

Though both Biden and Trump handily clinched their respective parties’ nominations this spring, protest votes against the two candidates have mounted during the primary cycle as polls show growing discontent among voters.

Advocacy group Montana for Palestine last Wednesday claimed a “‘no preference’ campaign victory” following an effort by the group to use the primary election to signal voters’ condemnation of U.S. support for Israel amid the ongoing war in Gaza. The group in an email admonished the Biden administration and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester for their support of Israel, calling Biden “a shameless genocidaire.”

Andrea Bachman, organizer of Montana for Palestine in the Flathead Valley, said she cast a “no preference” vote “to send a message to President Biden that I don’t support his policies that are supporting a genocide in Palestine.”

The number of Democratic “no preference” votes last week was more than double that of 2020, when 2.8%, or 4,250 voters, selected “no preference” in Montana’s Democratic primary. In 2016, 4.3%, or 5,415 voters, voted “no preference.” In 2012, when former President Barack Obama was the only candidate on the primary ballot, however, 10% of voters selected “no preference,” a similar figure to this year’s election.

In the 2020 Republican primary, 6% of Montanans (13,184) voted “uncommitted.” “No preference” received 4.7% of the vote (7,369) in 2016 and 3.9% in 2012 (5,456).

President Biden has lost more than a half-million votes to “uncommitted” or “no preference” movements across the country this primary cycle, according to The Hill.

Brendan Work, co-founder of Montana for Palestine, said the movement is an “attempt to show the Biden administration that we have a red line, that voters are disgusted by their aid, support, complicity in the genocide.”

Democratic officials have warned that if progressives sit out of the election in November, it will likely go to Trump, who has vowed to “set [the pro-Palestinian protest] movement back 25 or 30 years” and called himself the “best friend Israel has ever had.”

“There’s no such thing to us as a ‘lesser evil’ genocide,” Work said, adding that he will not vote for Biden in November unless the president calls for an “immediate, permanent ceasefire.”

Trump, too, continues to lose votes despite clearing the primary field of competitors after Nikki Haley dropped out of the race in March. Haley won one in five Republican primary votes in Indiana last month, despite no longer being in the race. She boasted similar numbers in Maryland, and in Nebraska’s Republican primary last month, more than one-fifth of voters cast a ballot for someone other than Trump.

Per an April poll by the Pew Research Center, half of polled voters said they would replace both Biden and Trump on the ballot if given the chance.

Montana for Palestine also encouraged voters to write in “ceasefire” in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, which Jon Tester easily won.

When asked about the “ceasefire” protest votes, a spokesperson for the Tester campaign pointed to the high number of votes captured by the senator. Tester received 97% of votes (103,341) in the primary –– 9,590 more than Biden.

The secretary of state’s office has not released the total number of write-in votes for the Democratic Senate primary. In Gallatin County, 1% of voters (141) cast a write-in vote in the Senate race. In Yellowstone County, less than 1% (49) did so.

The Tester spokesperson did not respond to specific questions about whether or not the campaign is concerned about capturing the votes of Montana progressives as the senator heads into a highly-competitive reelection bid. The Montana Democratic Party did not respond to requests for comment.

Pro-Palestinian organizers have made Tester a main target of their activism in recent months, questioning his policies on Israel during public events and disrupting his remarks at the Montana Democratic Party’s annual Mansfield Metcalf fundraiser.

Work said Tester’s position as chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense puts him in “a powerful position” to limit or cease weapons shipments to Israel.

The organization has not directed specific protests towards the Republican members of Montana’s congressional delegation –– U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, Rep. Ryan Zinke and Rep. Matt Rosendale –– who have expressed staunch support for Israel since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on the country.

Zinke in November introduced a bill that would expel Palestinians from the U.S. who arrived after September 2023.

When asked about the state’s Republican Congress members, Work again emphasized Tester’s role on the defense subcommittee and said that progressive voters in Montana are “taken for granted by the Democratic Party.”

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