Virginia Must Change Its Election System

Terry Jeffrey

12/28/2011 12:01:00 AM - Terry Jeffrey

When I managed Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign in 1996, I learned that some states conducted fair and honest caucuses and primaries and that some did not.

Iowa, historically the first caucus state, and New Hampshire, historically the first primary state, conducted their political business fairly. New York did not.

Today Virginia's political system is beginning to resemble New York's in 1996.

To get on the Republican primary ballot in New York that year, a candidate needed to submit signatures from 1,250 registered Republican voters in each of the state's 31 congressional districts or signatures from 5 percent of registered Republicans in a district if that number were less than 1,250.

But that was not all. Only a registered Republican living in the district or a notary public could collect signatures; they could gather signatures only between Thanksgiving and Jan. 4; and signatures could be challenged by opposing campaigns.

As The New York Times reported then, petitions could be disqualified for technicalities -- for example, if they were bound "with paper clips instead of staples."

Early in 1995, virtually the entire New York Republican establishment -- including then-Gov. George Pataki and then-Sen. Alfonse D'Amato -- endorsed then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas for the Republican presidential nomination. They made clear that they wanted to lock other candidates out of New York's primary and award Dole New York's delegates without giving the grass roots of their own party any say in the matter.

"New York State's party chairman, William Powers, vows to have the party's full complement of 33,000 committee people out circulating petitions for Mr. Dole, which will make it hard for other candidates to find Republican field workers," The New York Times reported March 30, 1995. "Candidates who try to provide voters with a choice by circulating nominating petitions will also be tortured by ballot-wise lawyers ready to raise every nit in New York's nitpicking election law to get their petitions declared invalid."

This confronted Dole's rivals with a strategic dilemma.

On the one hand, attempting to get on New York's ballot would carry enormous costs. A candidate could either pay massive sums to hire people to circulate petitions or build a massive grass-roots army of in-state volunteers. The first means would take money that a non-establishment candidate could not readily spare from earlier contests. The second would drain operatives and institutional focus from those contests.

On the other hand, a candidate who failed to qualify for New York's ballot not only would lose any chance at winning some of New York's delegates but also might sustain a momentum-draining public relations hit -- just a few weeks before the all-important initial contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. The press and opponents could say: "He is not a serious candidate. He did not even get on the ballot in New York."

Some major candidates -- including then-Sen. Phil Gramm and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander -- decided not to compete in New York.

Buchanan and Steve Forbes did.

The Buchanan Brigades built a grass-roots army of 800 volunteers backed up by field organizers the campaign diverted from early primary and caucus states, notably Iowa.

When the Jan. 4 deadline came, Buchanan submitted sufficient signatures to qualify in 17 congressional districts. Forbes qualified in all 31.

Then the Dole campaign started challenging Buchanan's and Forbes' petitions.

A federal appeals court ruling eventually allowed Forbes to remain on the ballot in 31 districts and gave Buchanan access in 23.

The night of that 1996 primary, according to the New York Daily News, Sen. D'Amato said, "To those Republicans who felt the process could have been a fairer one, you were absolutely right."

"In hindsight," D'Amato said, "I probably should have asked the Legislature to consider opening up the primary system and consider making it easier for a legitimate candidate to get on the ballot."

Nowadays it is easier to qualify for New York's presidential primary.

But in Virginia, according to a law the Virginia State Board of Elections says was enacted in 1998, a candidate must submit at least 10,000 signatures from registered voters who intend to vote in the primary. Among these there must be at least 400 from each of Virginia's 11 congressional districts. The signatures must be gathered after July 1, submitted by Dec. 22 and certified by the state chairman of the party in question.

Facing these criteria, only four Republican presidential candidates -- former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- submitted signatures in Virginia.

On Saturday, Virginia Republican Party Chairman Pat Mullins announced that only Romney and Paul had met the requirements.

I spoke with Mullins about the process Tuesday. He said that in certifying the candidates, he consulted with his general counsel and set up a process to faithfully follow the election law as it is written. Representatives from each of the four campaigns who had submitted signatures were present when volunteers reviewed their submissions. The media were welcome to witness the process.

But, Mullins said, "I was not happy at all in signing that certification with only two names on it."

He would like to see the Virginia law changed so that it strikes a balance between keeping frivolous candidates off the ballot and allowing all serious candidates access.

I would loosen it further: Let anybody on the primary ballot who meets the constitutional qualifications for president. Let voters decide whom they want their party to nominate.

Virginia's current system is designed to take power away from voters and give it to party bosses and establishment candidates who can raise massive amounts of money early in a campaign. It is wrong.