NASHUA, N.H. — The Democratic National Committee has worked for years to design what its rules committee co-chairman Jim Roosevelt III has called a “transparent” 2024 nominating process, with a “level playing field” that could increase “opportunities for Democratic voters.”
But as Democrats prepare to cast their first ballots Tuesday, those lofty goals are crashing into a complex and messy result, with President Biden’s rivals in the Democratic Party and others crying foul.
New Hampshire’s Republican attorney general sent a cease-and-desist letter this month accusing Roosevelt of voter suppression by publicly calling the state primary “meaningless” because it will not result in official nominating delegates under the party rules.
Biden’s two most prominent rivals, Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) and author Marianne Williamson, are separately upset with decisions of some state Democratic parties elsewhere to initially propose to have only Biden on primary ballots — moves that could reduce the choices for Democratic voters in those states if the campaigns do not achieve ballot access by other means.
Phillips in particular has made what he calls “the hypocrisy of democracy” a centerpiece of his long-shot bid to prevent Biden from becoming the 2024 standard-bearer as he campaigns through New Hampshire. A group advertising on his behalf in the state has been running ads telling party members to “push back” against their party leaders.
“I have discovered massive, I will call it, corruption and a lack of transparency and incongruency with a party that ostensibly is practicing and protecting and preserving democracy,” Phillips said in an interview with The Washington Post Saturday. “Right now I think there is lack of transparency. There are barriers to entry.”
Political parties have significant legal power to shape their nominating processes, with states often deferring to party leaders to pick the candidates that appear on ballots or decide whether to hold a nominating process at all. Multiple Republican state parties canceled their primaries and caucuses entirely in 2020 to reduce the threat of challenge to then-President Donald Trump.
Democrats at the national party have taken a different approach this cycle, publicly embracing the ideal of competitive and open contests that will draw voters. At the same time, party leaders have worked closely with the Biden campaign to build out his reelection campaign and to structure the contest in a way that could help him win the nomination.
At Biden’s direction in 2022, the DNC effectively canceled the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and signaled that it would prevent the New Hampshire primary from awarding delegates if it went second, removing two states that had caused him trouble in 2020. South Carolina, where Biden did well before, will be the first official state primary to award delegates, followed by Nevada and Michigan.
“A core mission of the Democratic Party is to uphold and strengthen the democratic process, and that’s why we’ve made strides over the last several cycles to bring more voters to the table and amplify the voices of voters of color, who are the backbone of our party,” Sarafina Chitika, a spokesperson for the DNC, said in a statement.
The DNC rules also left in place significant powers for state party leaders to make decisions about who they propose appear on primary ballots. Since then, the state parties in four states — Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Tennessee — have asked the state to run Biden as the only candidate in their upcoming primary. In all of the states except for Florida, there is an alternate petition process for achieving ballot access.
“Each primary season, the role of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee is to lay out the guardrails by which a state party can run its primary contest. The role of the state party is to plan and execute that process fairly, and the role of a campaign is to get its candidate on the ballot,” Chitika said. “If a candidate believes that process has broken down, we want to hear from them, and the Rules and Bylaws Committee will assess each case on its merits.”
Florida leaders effectively canceled their state primary when they decided to only recommend Biden for the ballot in October, following a process that the Phillips campaign has since challenged at the DNC on the grounds that the meeting to make that decision was not properly disclosed beforehand.
“We followed our process that is consistent with state law. The notion that there is some kind of conspiracy is dead wrong,” said Eden Giagnorio, the Florida Democratic Party’s communications director. “What is anti-democratic is seeking to undermine the will of the state executive committee which represents Florida.”
Democratic leaders in North Carolina, which invited Williamson on the ballot in 2020, also put forward only Biden’s name after concluding in an internal process that neither Phillips nor Williamson had enough presence in the state to justify their inclusion. In Wisconsin, Democratic leaders only submitted Biden’s name for the ballot, after having a choice of 12 candidates in the 2020 primaries.
“I don’t think anybody should be surprised about the way this process is working itself out,” said one Wisconsin party official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the process as being different because Biden is running for reelection. “It has always been the case with an incumbent in office.”
In Tennessee, a new state law allowed the state executive committee to directly submit names for the ballot in November, and they submitted only Biden because they had not yet heard from any other campaign when they met to make the decision, state party chair Hendrell Remus said.
“The message that is being sent is you need a little bit less democracy to protect democracy,” said Jeff Weaver, an adviser to the Phillips campaign who previously worked for the presidential efforts of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Williamson’s campaign has also protested. “The delegates for these states will likely be given to Biden,” said Williamson adviser Mark Van Landuyt in a statement. “He didn’t have to campaign for them, he didn’t have to fight for them, he didn’t have to earn votes in these crucial swing states. The Democratic Party’s misplaced attempts at protecting Biden endangers Democrats up and down the ballot.”
The other fight playing out in New Hampshire concerns efforts by the DNC to enforce its new calendar by dissuading Democratic participation in the state’s primary. The co-chairs of the DNC rules committee, Roosevelt and Minyon Moore, sent a Jan. 5 letter to New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley chiding him for continuing a process to select delegates after the state primary, even though the DNC has said no delegates selected as a result of the vote will be seated at the convention.
“The NHDP must take steps to educate the public that January 23rd is a nonbinding presidential preference event and is meaningless,” the letter read.
The state attorney general objected to the word “meaningless,” saying in a subsequent “cease and desist order” letter to the DNC that such a description “violates New Hampshire’s voter suppression laws.” The attorney general said that even though the primary did not result in convention delegates, the election still had meaning.
Buckley said in an interview that the dust-up had backfired on the DNC by increasing Democratic voter interest in the Tuesday contest.
“Once the attorney general made that statement and sent that letter it became statewide news,” Buckley said. “I think it has done more to motivate Democrats to vote than anything anyone has done this year.”
Ben Terris contributed to this report.