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How did Virginia's ballot access get so strict?


The drama that left Mitt Romney and Ron Paul as the only candidates for the March 6 GOP primary already has led to calls for reform.

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Virginia's requirements to qualify for a presidential primary — 10,000 valid signatures, including 400 from each of the 11 congressional districts — are twice as strict as those in any other state, according to a national authority on ballot access.

"It seems obvious to me that Virginia is the hardest," said Richard Winger, a Californian who since 1985 has published Ballot Access News, a monthly newsletter.

"Virginia is the only state that requires more than 4,500 signatures," he said, referring to Indiana, which has the second-strictest standard.

The drama that left Mitt Romney and Ron Paul as the only candidates for the March 6 Republican primary, with Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich on the outside, already has led to calls for reform.

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli on Saturday raised the prospect of an unspecified fix through emergency legislation — a route that faces prohibitive logistical hurdles. For instance, it would require 32 of the 40 votes in an evenly divided state Senate.

"Recent events have underscored that our system is deficient," Cuccinelli said in a statement. "Virginia owes her citizens a better process. We can do it in time for the March primary if we resolve to do so quickly."

Tucker Martin, a spokesman for Gov. Bob McDonnell, said: "If the General Assembly decides to take action to change Virginia's ballot access requirements for the March 2012 primary, the governor would review those changes thoroughly and take action at the appropriate time."

But Martin also noted that Virginia's ballot-access laws have been in place for many years and that McDonnell met the requirements in his 2005 and 2009 campaigns for statewide office.

Also Saturday, The Associated Press reported that lawyers for Gingrich, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum joined Perry in asking to have their names added to Virginia's March 6 ballot. Bachmann, Huntsman and Santorum did not even submit signatures to qualify.

But in Richmond on Thursday, during a hearing in U.S. District Court on Perry's ballot-access lawsuit, Judge John A. Gibney Jr. ordered Perry's lawyers to alert the other Republican candidates about his case to see if they wished to intervene.

Gingrich told reporters in Iowa on Saturday: "This should not be a gauntlet to figure out how you can make it virtually impossible to run for president."

And that raises a question: How did Virginia arrive at such a strict standard?


* * * * *


Until 1970, Virginia required only 1,000 signatures to get a presidential candidate on the ballot and 250 signatures to qualify for the ballot in other statewide races.

That year, the General Assembly approved the most sweeping overhaul of Virginia's election laws since the 1902 state constitution.

As part of the revisions, Virginia legislators enacted a requirement for primaries in statewide elections — signatures of 0.5 percent of registered voters.

Legislators might not have considered such a standard onerous at the time. But seismic shifts — legal, political and demographic — soon would swell Virginia's voter rolls and heighten the signature-gathering burden.

Virginia's poll tax, which took effect in 1904, had impeded voting by blacks in Virginia until the 1960s, when the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and a 1966 U.S. Supreme Court decision barred such taxes as a condition of voting.

Consider that in the 1960 presidential election, Virginians cast about 771,000 votes, just one-third of the potential voting population of 2.4 million, as University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato reported in the 1983-86 edition of his Virginia Votes series.

By 1976, Virginians cast 1.71 million votes in the presidential election.

The 1970 overhaul of state election laws included a precursor of the provision that Perry now is fighting in federal court. It said that each signature "must be witnessed by a person who is a qualified voter within the area" for which the signatures are obtained.

At some point — Sabato believes it was the early 1980s — legislators added an additional hurdle: a requirement that a candidate for statewide office get at least 200 signatures from each congressional district.

There was a public policy rationale, Sabato says. It meant that as Virginia's population shifted to Northern Virginia, greater Richmond and Hampton Roads, statewide candidates could not ignore rural parts of the state.


* * * * *


In 1988, Virginia held its first-ever presidential primary as one of 14 Southern and border states that took part in the first "Super Tuesday." The idea was to create a vehicle for a centrist Democrat, such as then-Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, to capture the party's presidential nomination. The move backfired as the Rev. Jesse Jackson won in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia.

Virginia Republicans held their presidential primary on the same day. The state's voters wound up with 14 candidates on the two ballots — eight Democrats and six Republicans.

The field was so large because legislators crafted the 1988 primary as an entity unto itself, Sabato says. That's why any candidate who qualified for federal matching funds made the ballot. Virginia essentially allowed "anyone discussed in the media" to appear on the ballot, said Winger, of Ballot Access News.

Virginia would not hold another presidential primary until 2000.

By the late 1990s, the one-time-only Super Tuesday rules were a mere memory. Virginia's requirement of signatures from 0.5 percent of registered voters remained on the books. By January 1998, that meant a candidate needed about 17,000 signatures to qualify.

That year, the General Assembly passed a bill introduced by Del. Vincent F. Callahan, R-Fairfax, that reduced the hurdle — to "only" 10,000 signatures. But the bill increased the geographical requirement from 200 to 400 signatures in each congressional district.

Those requirements have been in place ever since.

In 2000, five candidates made the ballot for Virginia's GOP presidential primary — Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

In 2008, six candidates qualified for Virginia's GOP presidential primary — McCain, Romney, Paul, Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani.


* * * * *


So, if the same rules applied, why did only two candidates qualify for the 2012 primary? Was it incompetence by the candidates' campaigns, or was the state GOP stricter this time in assessing the candidates' signatures?

It appears a little of both.

Former Lt. Gov. John Hager served as chairman of the state GOP at the time of the February 2008 primary, when the six candidates qualified for the ballot.

"I don't know that we did as extensive checking" of signatures as occurred this month, said Hager, noting that in 2008 the GOP did not have the technology to link to the State Board of Elections.

"We were assured, collectively (the candidates) had qualified. We did not go signature by signature," Hager said.

But Hager said of the candidates: "They knew the rules then, and they knew the rules now."

On Wednesday, after Perry filed suit to get on the ballot, state GOP Chairman Pat Mullins released a brief statement defending his actions.

"I complied with Virginia law by certifying the candidates who met the statutory requirements," he said.

So what should Virginia do for future elections?

In his Dec. 26 online newsletter, Cuccinelli suggested that Virginia "lower our requirements to 100 legitimate signatures per congressional district."

Sabato proposes dropping the required number of statewide signatures to 5,000. Within the 5,000 — instead of combing each congressional district — candidates would gather 400 from each of several larger regions. One might include all three of Northern Virginia's congressional districts, he said.

Winger of Ballot Access News has another thought: "I don't know why they don't go back to what they used in 1988."

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