After Only 2 Qualify for Presidential Primary, Virginia GOP Chair Says State Should Change Election Law

By Terence P. Jeffrey | December 28, 2011 | 12:26 AM EST

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at a debate in Iowa earlier this month. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

(CNSNews.com) - After only two Republican presidential candidates qualified for the ballot in Virginia’s March 6 presidential primary, Virginia’s Republican Party chairman is calling for the state to change its ballot access law.

“I was not happy at all in signing that certification with only two names on it,” Virginia GOP Chairman Pat Mullins told CNSNews.com on Tuesday.

Last Thursday, four Republican presidential candidates presented petitions bearing voter signatures to the Virginia Board of Elections. They were seeking to fulfill the state's legal requirements for a place on the ballot in its presidential primary.

The candidates submitting the petitions were former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Under the terms of a Virginia election law that the Virginia Board of Elections says was enacted in 1998, each candidate was required to submit at least 10,000 signatures of registered Virginia voters with at least 400 signatures coming from each of the state’s 11 congressional districts. In signing these petitions, voters were promising that they intended to participate in Virginia’s Republican primary. (Virginia voters do not register by party.)

Under Virginia's law, the Virginia Board of Elections was required to pass these ballot-access petitions on to the chairman of the state Republican Party who was responsible for certifying whether each candidate had fulfilled the requirements of the ballot-access law.

Mullins says that a group of volunteers checked the signatures submitted by the four candidates against a computer database of registered voters. He also says that each of the four campaigns that submitted ballot-access petitions had a representative present when the signatures were being checked and that the media was invited and welcome to attend and observe the petition-checking process.

Mullins also says that before the signatures were checked he had consulted with the general counsel of the Virginia Republican Party to insure that the party followed a process that was in keeping with what the law required.

When the petitions had been checked, it turned out that only Romney and Paul satisfied the terms of Virginia’s ballot access law. Gingrich and Perry did not.

Mullins told CNSNews.com that all four candidates—Romney, Paul, Perry and Gingrich—had succeeded in securing at least 400 signatures from registered voters in each of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts. Perry and Gingrich, however, had failed to secure the signatures of at least 10,000 registered voters statewide.

Mullins refuted a report published online by Ballot Access News that the party had checked the validity of the signatures on the ballot access petitions submitted in this presidential campaign because of a lawsuit that had been filed this fall by an independent candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates.

On Oct. 24, Michael Osborne, an independent candidate or the Bristol, Va.-based 5th District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, sued in the Bristol Virginia Circuit Court arguing that Virginia’s ballot access law was discriminatory. While Osborne’s ballot-access petitions were reviewed by the registrars of voters, his Republican opponent’s petitions were, under the terms of the law, reviewed and certified by the local Republican Party chairman.

As reported by the Bristol Herald Courier on Oct. 19, 2011, the Republican chairman of Virginia's 5th district, Brandon Boyles, did not check whether the signatures submitted by the Republican candidate for the district’s seat in the House of Delegates, Israel O’Quinn, belonged to registered voters in the district.

“What upsets Osborne about this process is the fact that Boyles checked each of O'Quinn's petitions only to ensure there were no duplicate signatures and whether the forms were properly signed by their circulators,” the Herald Courier reported.

“The party chairman,” reported the Herald Courier, “did not check whether the people who signed the petitions were registered voters, as Osborne was required to do, nor whether they actually lived in the 5th District. Boyles confirmed this statement Monday during a phone interview with the Bristol Herald Courier. He also said that nothing in the state's election laws requires him to take any extra steps.”

"The code is basically silent on how we are to conduct our certification process," Boyles told the Herald Courier. "It says we have to certify the petitions. It doesn't say we have to do that in any specific manner."

The suit filed by Osborne will be heard by the Virginia court early next year.

A blog entry posted on the website Ballot Access News on Dec. 25 argued that the Virginia Republican Party only checked the validity of the signatures on the petitions filed by presidential candidates because of Osborne’s lawsuit.

“The only reason the Virginia Republican Party checked the signatures for validity for the current primary is that in October 2011, an independent candidate for the legislature, Michael Osborne, sued the Virginia Republican Party because it did not check petitions for its own members, when they submitted primary petitions,” said the blog entry.

“Osborne had no trouble getting the needed 125 valid signatures for his own independent candidacy, but he charged that his Republican opponent’s primary petition had never been checked, and that if it had been, that opponent would not have qualified,” said the Ballot Access New blog entry.

“The lawsuit, Osborne v Boyles, cl 11-520-00, was filed in Bristol County Circuit Court,” said the blog. “It was filed too late to be heard before the election, but is still pending. The effect of the lawsuit was to persuade the Republican Party to start checking petitions. If the Republican Party had not changed that policy, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry would be on the 2012 ballot.”

In a telephone interview, CNSNews.com read the above passages from Ballot Access News to Virginia Republican Party Chairman Mullins.

“I know nothing about that case,” said Mullins, insisting he did not even know of its existence prior to being asked about it by CNSNews.com.

“The case had no bearing on what we did,” Mullins said.

Mullins noted this was the first presidential primary he had resided over as chairman of the Virginia Republican Party. In preparing for it, he said, he had consulted with the party’s general counsel and set up a procedure that complied with what Virginia law required of both political parties.

“We followed what the code of Virginia told us to do,” he said.

When the candidates’ ballot access petitions were handed over to him by the Virginia Board of Elections for certification, as required by the Virginia law, Mullins said he opened them and had a crew of 30 or more volunteers ready to check them against a computer database of registered Virginia voters. The media had been invited to witness the process, and each of the four campaigns that had submitted petitions had representatives there to watch it.

The signatures on the petitions were checked by the addresses that accompanied them. These addresses were fed into the computer database, which brought up registered voters by household.

Mullins said that when the petitions were checked, it turned out that all of the candidates had been able to secure at least 400 valid signatures in each of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts, but that Perry and Gingrich had not been able to collect 10,000 valid signatures statewide.

Mullins told CNSNews.com he is not happy with the outcome and would like Virginia to change its ballot access law.

“Is there a balance somewhere between protecting the ballot so there are not 30 Mickey Mouse candidates on it and loosening it a little?” Mullins asked.

That is something, he says, the Virginia legislature should deal with.

He believes such a balance can be struck, perhaps be requiring candidates to pay a filing fee of as much as $5,000 while submitting far fewer signatures.

He made clear, however, that he would like the law to be changed so that non-frivolous candidates are not excluded from Virginia’s primary ballots.

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