As Biden skips NH primary, Democrats plan a write-in campaign anyway
A supporter of Joe Biden picks up a campaign sign outside of a polling place at Webster School on Feb. 11, 2020, in Manchester. (Scott Olson | Getty Images)
If a voter writes “Biden” in the write-in portion of the New Hampshire Democratic Party presidential primary ballot this January, it will likely count as a vote for President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Dave Scanlan says.
If a voter writes “Joe Biden” but spells it “Joe Bidon,” that will also count.
If a voter simply writes “Joe”? That depends.
“Then you have to ask the question, ‘Well, are there any other Joes on the ballot or running?’” Scanlan said at a press conference Tuesday. “If there are, then you probably don’t know which Joe the person is voting for.”
The questions could soon become important. Biden announced Tuesday that he would not be filing in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, pointing to the state’s refusal to agree to the Democratic National Committee’s request that it hold its primary later.
Now, some state Democrats are planning to rally around Biden anyway – and launch a write-in campaign to make him New Hampshire’s Democratic nominee.
A number of veteran Democratic campaigners are throwing their weight behind a write-in campaign for Biden, including former party chair Kathy Sullivan, former executive councilor and gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern, and longtime campaign strategist Jim Demers. That effort will likely be announced early next week, Demers told the Bulletin Thursday.
The attempt will be the first major write-in effort for a presidential candidate in modern New Hampshire history, and it will demand a nimble strategy from Biden’s supporters. And it comes as Granite State Democrats are vying to prove the state’s relevance to the presidential process even as national figureheads in their party attempt to move on.
“I’m beyond worrying about what the DNC did,” said Demers. “I think the elections are about November and the November election is where my focus is. So I want to do everything possible to make sure that Joe Biden wins reelection.”
Among the challenges for supporters of the president: Biden will not be on the New Hampshire ballot, but his primary opponents will. Marianne Williamson, the self-help author who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2020, filed her candidacy in New Hampshire on Oct. 12, and seven other Democratic candidates had also filed by Tuesday, Scanlan said.
Biden campaigners will need to steer Democratic and independent voters away from those other Democrats and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the former Democrat who is running as an independent candidate this cycle.
And they will need to contend with Democratic-leaning voters who are contemplating either sitting out the primary entirely or casting their ballot in the Republican field. Earlier this month, Scanlan announced that 408 former Democrats had changed their party registration to Republican and 3,542 additional Democrats had registered as “undeclared,” allowing them to vote in either primary. The deadline for voters to change their party registration ahead of the primary has now ended; those who are registered as Democrats or Republicans can no longer cross over to the other side in this election.
And Biden supporters will need to fund the effort and file expenditure requests to do so with the Federal Elections Commission.
But Demers says he’s not concerned with persuading New Hampshire Democrats to vote for Biden. The bigger priority, he said, will be telling voters how to do it.
“My expectation is this is not going to look like your typical sort of slick campaign. … It’s going to be a real citizens’ grassroots effort and it’s going to be more educational. Because there’s a lot of people that have never written in a candidate’s name in their life.”
The write-in campaign will test not just Democrats but also state and local election officials, who are poised to grapple with unprecedented numbers of ballots that will need to be hand-counted on Election Day.
Addressing local and national reporters Tuesday, Scanlan said he isn’t concerned with the additional workload. But he did say the office is recommending that some cities and towns try to recruit more volunteers.
“It sounds like it’d be a big job but remember it is one race where it’s vote for one, and it is fairly easy to sort through ballots,” he said.
He added: “I fully expect the towns are going to be able to get the volunteer resources to help with that.”
In any New Hampshire election, when town poll workers receive ballots with write-in votes, they sort them into a separate pile for hand-counting, Scanlan said. If the number of votes for the same candidate hits a significant threshold – even as low as five – the town is required to report that to the Secretary of State’s Office at the end of the night.
After sorting the ballots, teams of volunteers will need to count the ballot by hand, generally in stacks of 25, Scanlan said. That effort will be more labor intensive in cities and towns that use voting tabulators to count ballots; Scanlan said those towns will need to increase volunteers.
When it comes to the spelling of a candidate’s name, New Hampshire law dictates that town moderators are required to determine the reasonable intent of the voter, Scanlan said. Moderators have discretion in determining whether the intent was clear, but their decisions may be challenged by residents or campaign officials. At that point, the state’s Ballot Law Commission may review the call itself.
Scanlan said that while cities and towns may have more work on Election Day, the write-in campaign will not create additional work for the Secretary of State’s Office – unless the results are close and require a recount.
And unlike in the 2020 presidential election, when concerns about COVID-19 prompted state lawmakers to pass a number of temporary provisions to make it easier for election workers to process the record number of absentee ballots, Scanlan said there will likely be no accommodations made this time around. That effort would require the Legislature to hold a special session by January.
Beyond logistics, some political observers say New Hampshire Democrats have their work cut out for them politically.
Democrats here were surprised by a key DNC committee’s decision in December to recommend that South Carolina lead the presidential primary calendar. Now, many of those same Democrats must make the case to both national and local Democrats that the New Hampshire presidential primary is still relevant, noted Chris Galdieri, politics professor at St. Anselm College.
They must also attempt to keep support for Biden high among fellow Democrats in order to sustain the political momentum he’ll need in November. New Hampshire is still a swing state, and if the president won’t campaign here during the primary period, Democrats will need to do it for him, he said.
“It’s sort of like three-dimensional chess going on here,” he said, “where you’re asking people to hold a bunch of kind of contradictory ideas at the same time. That on the one hand, it’s bad that Biden wants South Carolina to upend the primary calendar. (But that) on the second hand, you as a New Hampshire Democrat should take the effort to get up on a wintry January Tuesday and go write in the name of somebody who’s not on the ballot, who is the person who wants South Carolina to be first, and that you should be glad to do this even though the person you’re writing in – because of this headache of his own doing – can’t file in the primary, can’t give a speech here, can’t do ads and mailers, and that sort of thing.”
In the face of that headache, Galdieri says one argument might break through: Vote Biden to prevent former President Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, from returning to the presidency.
“My guess is that this write-in effort will frame itself as, ‘This is the first thing you’ll get to do in 2024 to keep Donald Trump out of the White House,’” he said.
Demers, for his part, argues the pitch for Biden will be straightforward, pointing to polling showing relatively high levels of support for Biden among New Hampshire Democrats despite the attempted primary shakeup.
As for whether New Hampshire reclaims its first-it-the-nation position in the Democratic primary by 2028? That’s a concern for the next campaign, Demers said.
“I do believe that if we are successful in a write-in effort where Joe Biden wins the New Hampshire primary, there’s a story to tell there,” Demers said. “And the biggest story is that’s a clear demonstration that the voters of New Hampshire continue to take this role very seriously and very responsibly.”
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