POLITICS

How Obama Ended Up On (And Off) The Michigan Ballot

05/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's an argument Sen. Hillary Clinton has made countless times. Asked why the unofficial results of the Michigan primary should be considered legitimate, even though Sen. Barack Obama's name wasn't on the ballot, the New York Democrat usually shoots back: "Well, that was his choice."

And it's true. Obama, in addition to three other Democratic candidates, made the decision in early October 2007 to not compete in a Michigan primary that the Democratic National Committee deemed in violation of the rules.

But there is another facet to the story that -- while it doesn't change the basic facts -- adds a ripple to the debate surrounding who is to blame for Michigan's quandary.

Obama never actually put his name on the ballot.

He didn't submit paper work or gather signatures so that he could compete. Rather his name, in addition to those of his primary opponents, was submitted by Michigan's Democratic Party in accordance with state law.

"This was a standard procedure," said an official with the state's Democratic Party, "all the Democratic nominees that had declared for the race were put on the ballot after we sent their names to the Secretary of State."

Ultimately, Obama chose to remove his name just prior to the deadline to do so. And his decision, political observers say, was likely driven by a desire to appeal to Iowa voters (who were angered that Michigan had moved its primary up in the calendar) as well as the conclusion that he simply could not beat Clinton.

But the argument over what role he played in undermining the Michigan primary -- and whether or not his motives were purely political self-interest or respect for the DNC -- is muddled by the fact that it wasn't technically his choice to participate in the first place.

Clinton, for instance, has argued that, "There was no rule or requirement that he take his name off the ballot." This statement, while true, glosses over the path that led Obama to ultimately remove his name. Indeed, when the Democratic candidates were submitted it was already well known that Michigan's accelerated primary would have difficultly getting sanctioned.

"Did Obama take overt action in the beginning to put his name on the ballot and then take it off? No," said Bill Ballenger, editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics. "It was put on the ballot by the higher ups... At the time, everybody knew that what Michigan was doing [with its primary] was in defiance of DNC rules."

Weeks after his name was submitted without his consent or objection, Obama personally signed an affidavit removing him from the primary slate. According to Ballenger, the senator could not have done the same thing in Florida -- the other state whose primary was unofficial -- as there was no state law there that allowed a candidate to remove his or her name.

After that, there were still political options available to Michigan legislators for running a full and successful primary. In the weeks after Obama, John Edwards, Joseph Biden and Bill Richardson removed their names, state Democrats attempted amending a law in order to restore their candidacies on the ballot. That effort, however, died in the Republican-controlled state senate. Weeks later a November 15th deadline loomed for either or both state party chairman to go to the legislature and ask for the Michigan primary to be disregarded and rescheduled.

"There was a clause in the law that said that if both party leaders believed that the primary had become meaningless, and said look, this is ridiculous, this is a farce, they could have canceled it," said Ballenger. "There was a big crisis meeting among Democrats - there was a big rankle over whether the Democrats would throw in the towel. And they said, no, we are going to go ahead with it."

Fast forward half a year and Michigan and the Democratic Party as a whole still are unsure as to what to do about the primary results. On a conference call Thursday morning, Clinton's senior adviser Harold Ickes said that the campaign wanted the state's 55 "uncommitted" delegates -- which seemed likely to end up with Obama -- to go to the convention without commitments. It is a position reflective of the belief that because Obama did not participate in the primary it is impossible and unfair to determine his level of support.

But such a resolution, which will become clearer during the May 31 Rules and Bylaws Committee hearing, seems unlikely. As Debbie Dingell, a Michigan DNC member who has been heavily involved in finding a solution to the primary process, told the Huffington Post: "our group of four is not arguing for that."

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