Democratic drama and Biden write-ins promise a New Hampshire primary to remember

WASHINGTON (AP) — Is a New Hampshire primary without the frontrunner on the ballot and no delegates up for grabs still a New Hampshire primary? Depends on who you ask.

On Tuesday, voters in the Granite State will once again help kick off the presidential primary season, on the heels of the Iowa caucuses that began the nomination process on the Republican side Monday. But this year, there’s something different about the traditional first-in-the-nation primary, at least on the Democratic side.

For starters, the Democratic National Committee, which has the ultimate say in how its presidential nominee will be picked, says state party officials violated national party rules by scheduling its contest earlier than allowed. As a result, the primary will have zero delegates at stake on Tuesday. Normally, the contest would have determined how the state’s original allotment of 23 pledged delegates to the presidential nominating convention in Chicago this summer would be allocated to the various candidates.

Furthermore, President Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for a second term, decided to skip New Hampshire since their primary violates party rules and will not appear on the ballot. It was Biden’s idea to bump the state from its prized primary calendar slot in favor of South Carolina, which resuscitated his struggling campaign in 2020. That year, Biden placed fourth in the Iowa caucuses and fifth in New Hampshire with only 8% of the vote.

The New Hampshire Democratic Party is nevertheless proceeding with the primary — which they note state law requires to be held before any other primary – and has already started the process of selecting people to serve as national convention delegates. This earned a sharp rebuke from the DNC, which called the upcoming primary both “meaningless” and “detrimental.”

In response, state Democratic party chairman Ray Buckley said in a statement, “Well, it’s safe to say in New Hampshire, the DNC is less popular than the NY Yankees. State law requires the New Hampshire Secretary of State to conduct the first-in-the-nation primary and he is going to follow the law — period. Nothing has changed, and we look forward to seeing a great Democratic voter turnout on January 23rd.”

Although Biden’s name will not appear as a printed option on the ballot, some New Hampshire Democrats have mounted an effort to encourage primary voters to cast their ballots for Biden as a write-in candidate. Write-in candidates are eligible to win elections in New Hampshire. President Lyndon Johnson did exactly that in 1968 when he won the New Hampshire primary as a write-in candidate, although he dropped out of the race 19 days later after what was widely perceived as a disappointing 8-point win over Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy.

In the 2020 New Hampshire Democratic primary, write-in votes comprised only 2% of the total vote, or about 6,000 votes. A large-scale write-in effort would increase the workload for local elections officials, but New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan has said that he expects results to be available on primary night, including a tally of write-in votes for Biden.

“It sounds like it would be a big job, but you have to remember, it is one race where it is ‘vote for one,’ and it’s fairly easy to sort through the ballots,” he told reporters at a briefing in October. “It’s going to be some extra work. I don’t know that it’s going to be that formidable.”

Scanlan has also said the counting process will be largely unaffected in communities that already hand-count ballots. The process will take longer in larger jurisdictions that use machines to count regular ballots because they will have to hand-count write-ins. He added that local officials are enlisting additional help to speed up the count.

“I think that is a challenge that can be overcome,” he said. “I fully expect the towns are going to be able to get the volunteer resources they need to help with that.”

The New Hampshire primary ballot provides would-be write-in voters with the following instructions: “To vote for a person whose name is not printed on the ballot, write in the name of the person in the ‘WRITE-IN’ space, and completely fill in the oval opposite your choice….” Scanlan advises voters to follow these instructions but adds that it’s important for local elections officials to determine the voter’s intent when reviewing ballots.

“If somebody wrote in the name of a candidate and they did not fill in the oval, that does not disqualify that vote,” he said in an interview with WMUR-TV. “The intent of that voter would be for the name that they actually wrote on the ballot. And that’s how that ballot would be counted.”

In New Hampshire, ballots without a darkened oval in a particular contest are typically categorized as “blank.” Thus, write-in votes where the oval is not filled in might be initially included in the “blank” total instead of the write-in total. This would be corrected as local election officials determine whether a ballot initially categorized as “blank” is actually a valid write-in vote.

As for variations in the spelling of a write-in candidate's name, Scanlan says the name doesn't have to be spelled correctly or written a specific way if the voter's intent is clear.

“If they write in just ‘Biden,’ I think that intent is very clear. If they write in 'Bidon,' I think the intent is still pretty clear,” he said in October. “If they just write ‘Joe,’ then you have to ask the question, well, are there any other Joe’s on the ballot or running. If there are, then you probably don’t know which ‘Joe’ the person’s voting for.”

The Associated Press will report a running total of unprocessed write-in votes as provided by election officials. The AP will then provide a breakdown of write-ins for Biden as well as a combined total of non-Biden write-ins as local officials sort the ballots throughout the night and the following days. As the number of write-ins for Biden and “Other write-ins” goes up, the number of unprocessed write-ins will go down.

A total of 21 Democrats will appear by name on the New Hampshire primary ballot on Tuesday, in addition to the option to vote for a write-in candidate. Republicans will also hold a primary, which features 24 listed candidates (while Republicans can also vote for a write-in candidate, the percentage exercising that option is expected to be minimal).

As for delegates, if recent history is any guide, it’s still possible that New Hampshire Democrats will send a delegation to the Democratic National Convention this summer and that they’ll cast votes for the nomination. In 2008, when Michigan and Florida held primaries earlier than allowed under party rules, the DNC initially said both states would be stripped of all their delegates. Then, after negotiations with the campaigns of then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, it announced that delegates from both states could each cast half a vote. By the time the convention began, party officials voted to grant Michigan and Florida delegates full voting rights in the interest of party unity.

The last successful statewide write-in effort for federal office was in 2010, when Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska lost the Republican primary but won the general election despite not appearing on the ballot. She received 99% of the write-in votes cast, but the final result wasn’t known for more than two weeks after Election Day.