Biden's Democratic challengers hit ballot access roadblocks

They're strugging to get on the ballots in four states.

December 23, 2023, 4:40 PM

Not only are many of President Joe Biden's most high-profile Democratic challengers having difficulty making a dent in national polling, but they're also running into a major snafu in their efforts to replace him: getting onto state ballots in the first place.

Rep. Dean Phillips, author Marianne Williamson and progressive commentator Cenk Uygur have encountered roadblocks in Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina and Massachusetts -- which they allege without evidence have been placed, at least in part, by the national Democratic Party, or even the president himself as part of a broader conspiracy between the "party elites" and state chapters to bend the process in Biden's favor.

Both state and national groups, for their part, unequivocally deny the allegation. The Democratic National Committee has been clear in its support for the incumbent, as iscustomary, since before Biden formally launched his re-election bid. State parties have also noted the "standard practice" of their decision to solely include the incumbent on their ballots, citing the move during previous election cycles.

2020 Democratic presidential hopeful former Vice President Joe Biden talks with fellow candidate Marianne Williamson (L) at the Wing Ding Dinner on August 9, 2019 in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

"The DNC does not oversee ballot access. Ballot access is determined through state parties and state law. In order to appear on a ballot, a campaign must complete state-specific requirements determined by those bodies," a DNC aide said in a statement to ABC News in response to the challenging campaigns' allegations.

The aide noted that the party offers resources and guidance to all Democratic primary candidates and "continues to be available as a resource to them on these matters."

Uygur is facing additional accessibility complications because of his status as a naturalized citizen. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution explicitly states that "no person except a natural born citizen" can be president. After being born in Turkey and immigrating to the U.S. at eight years old, Uygur's citizenship status seemingly does not fit under the constitutional requirement.


The first major blow was dealt to these challengers in late November, when Florida Democrats quietly submitted to their secretary of state a list of presidential candidates who would participate in their primary election on March 19 -- and only Biden was on it.

The move will likely trigger the state to cancel the contest altogether, as Florida state law dictates that if only one candidate is included on a party's primary ballot, their primary election would not be held.

The campaigns of Phillips, Williamson and Uygur immediately sounded the alarm over the state party's "authoritarian" and "unconstitutional" decision to exclude all three of their candidates -- the only other Democrats in the 2024 presidential race -- from the ballot despite their attempts to gain access.

While the deadline to submit nominations for the ballot to the Florida secretary of state was Nov. 30, it's the Florida Democratic Party's process to meet every four years at their state convention to vote and place candidates on their primary ballot, a process outlined in the DNC-approved delegate selection plan.

That convention began on Oct. 27 -- the same day that Phillips announced his candidacy -- and ended on Oct. 29. The party submitted their ballot on Nov. 1. Williamson's campaign said it had sent its paperwork in September, ahead of the party meeting, but did not hear back.

A spokesperson for the Florida Democratic Party told ABC News that the process is "standard."

"It is not uncommon for an incumbent president to be declared the automatic winner of a presidential primary. In 2011, Florida Democrats similarly voted unanimously for incumbent President Barack Obama," the party wrote in a statement.

Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Dean Phillips speaks at a campaign town hall meeting in Exeter, New Hampshire, December 8, 2023.
Brian Snyder/Reuters

Phillips' campaign has threatened legal challenges against both the Florida Democrats and the Democratic National Committee.

Former presidential candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang is assisting Phillips' cause, telling ABC News that "we are activating our network in Florida to help ensure that voters have a say in the future of the country." Yang clarified the "we" are allies in his network he knows personally rather than the official resources of the political party he founded in 2021, "The Forward Party."

"What's happening in Florida is important -- do we live in a democracy or not? If the Democrats can simply cancel their own primaries they should change their name to something else," Yang continued.

Uguyr's campaign eventually did file challenges against both parties. Earlier this month, he brought an "implementation challenge" arguing that the state party violated its own DNC-approved delegate selection plan by nominating a single candidate for the presidential preference primary through its State Executive Committee at a time and through a process that were not disclosed, which effectually excluded additional Democratic candidates appearing on the ballot.

On Dec. 13, DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee Co-Chairs Minyon Moore and James Roosevelt, Jr. responded to Uygur's filing by giving the Florida state party 21 days to respond to the challenge, a window that was then extended until Jan. 5 because of impending federal holidays.

The DNC offered to provide guidance to the Phillips campaign a few weeks before the Florida filing deadline, but the campaign said it did not take up their offer.

"We have not had an opportunity to meet with them," said Jeff Weaver, a senior advisor for Phillips, who ran Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign and advised his 2020 run. "What were they going to tell me beyond what was in the Democratic delegate selection plan? That the Florida party is holding out of fault the Democratic delegate selection plan?"

Tennessee and North Carolina

The deadlines for political parties in Tennessee and North Carolina to submit primary ballot lists to their state elections divisions were Dec. 5 and Dec. 6, respectively. The Democratic parties in both states also submitted just Biden as an option for voters, despite efforts from other candidates like Phillips, Williamson and Uygur to get on ballots.

Unlike in Florida, where there is a state law saying that if only one candidate is included on a party's primary ballot, their primary election would not be held, North Carolina and Tennessee will not cancel their Democratic primaries.

Yet, similarly to the Sunshine State, ballot access in Tennessee for Democrats is directed through a DNC-approved state delegate selection plan that does not explicitly outline a filing process for candidates. There is no filing fee or paperwork -- just an assumption that campaigns would need to correspond with the state party in order to get on the ballot.

Hendrell Remus, the chair of the Tennessee Democrats, said the State Executive Committee convened on Nov. 11 to establish its ballot. Biden was the only candidate the committee had "received interest from and vetted," he said, as a "a bona fide Democrat."

Remus fiercely denied any claims that the party was coordinating with national Democrats in efforts to deny other candidates from their ballot.

"That's absolutely not true for Tennessee. I mean, we follow the law," said Remus.

He said he directed each campaign to the other option for getting on the ballot: filing a petition signed by 2,500 registered Tennessee voters. Phillips' signatures are being verified by Tennessee's secretary of state.

In North Carolina, a spokesperson for the state party said it did get requests from candidates other than Biden, including Uygur, Williamson and Phillips, but told them they did not reach the standards for their nomination: a candidacy that is "generally advocated and recognized in the news media," that has a donor base and that includes active campaigning in the state.

A source familiar with the North Carolina Democrats denies any meddling from Democrats in Washington, D.C., such as the White House or the DNC. The source stressed that Phillips was equipped with all the information he needed to qualify for the ballot with significant time and was walked through the process by a member of the party directly.

The donor and campaign requirements dictated by the party are not in North Carolina's delegate selection plan approved by the DNC.

There are two additional methods for candidates to get on the North Carolina Democratic primary ballot: being nominated by a member of the State Board of Elections or submitting a petition signed by 10,000 residents.


Most recently, Williamson alleged that the Massachusetts Democratic Party was conducting a "misplaced attempt at protecting Joe Biden" after she learned the state party chair planned only to submit Biden's name -- despite her lobbying for the contrary -- to the secretary of the commonwealth for the official primary ballot.

"The DNC is at it again. ... This is a pattern and we cannot let it stand," Williamson said on X.

Democratic presidential candidate and author Marianne Williamson pays the US$1000 filing fee to put her name on the ballot for the primary election with New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan in Concord, New Hampshire, October 12, 2023.
Brian Snyder/Reuters

A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Democratic Party confirmed to ABC News that both Williamson and Phillips' campaigns submitted requests to the party's chairman to be placed on the ballot, but, "in following the state party's custom," the chair indeed only submitted Biden's name. A letter indicating that decision was submitted to the secretary of the commonwealth's office on Nov. 22, the office's communications director Debra O'Malley told ABC News, but the Democratic Party chair could add additional candidates until early January.

There are two other ways to get on the ballot in Massachusetts: collecting 2,500 signatures from registered and eligible voters or petitioning the secretary of the commonwealth himself by Dec 22. Williamson and Phillips' campaigns plan on pursuing the latter option, their respective teams tell ABC News.

"After that process is complete, the secretary will add any nationally recognized candidates to the ballot who have not qualified through other methods," O'Malley said.

Biden holds sizable leads over all of his primary challengers, according to 538 polling. He has a 61-point lead over Williamson, who averages around 7% nationally. Phillips is polling at 3.8%. Uygur was not included in 538's compilation of data