Virginia Explained: State’s primary process is ‘something of a free for all’

By: - June 6, 2019 11:10 pm

Voters in suburban Henrico’s Short Pump precinct cast their ballots. The area saw a surge in Democratic voters after Trump’s 2016 election. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Things have gotten a little confusing in Hanover County’s 97th House of Delegates District.

There have been two different winners from two nomination processes for the Republican candidate in that House of Delegates seat. In November, all of the General Assembly’s seats are up for a vote.

“Virginia’s process is something of a free-for-all and that’s why there are so many fights over the process,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “Individual candidates will prefer different nomination mechanisms because they think they will be more advantageous.”

The local Republican committee in Hanover decided to cancel a party convention in favor of a mass canvass, or firehouse primary. The convention went on anyway and Scott Wyatt, who was challenging Del. Chris Peace, declared himself winner. This past weekend, Peace came out as the winner of a mass canvass. 

With primary day on Tuesday, it’s still unclear who the actual Republican nominee is in the 97th House District.

What are the options for picking a general election candidate?

In primary elections,voters choose which candidates will represent a political party on a general election ballot.

This year, primaries for state legislative races and some local offices will be held on or finished by Tuesday. There are 49 Republican primaries and 45 Democratic primaries in 73 different localities, according to the Department of Elections.

In some races, there aren’t primaries at all because only one person from each party is interested in running.

If there is more than one person from a given party running, a local selection committee determines how a candidate for the general election will be chosen. 

In the past, incumbents were able to choose how parties would pick nominees, but that law was struck down last year by a federal judge in Waynesboro. There is no rule barring candidates from telling committees their preferred nomination process.

Technically in Virginia, “primary” refers to a state-run election to determine the official party nominee for an office. The term is also used generally to refer to the various processes used to select a candidate.

Before anything, candidates have to qualify to be on a ballot, a process overseen by the Department of Elections.

Requirements include being registered to vote, being a Virginia resident for at least a year preceding the election and submitting the appropriate paperwork, like getting the required number of signatures on nominating petitions to get on a ballot.

After that, local political party committees choose from a list of nominating procedures:

State-run election: This is the most common primary selection method. The state operates an election like it would for other positions, but the ballot only includes the people running for a party nomination. Political parties don’t run the elections and voters don’t have to be registered with a political party to vote.

These are the most inclusive, said Shyam Raman, political director for the Democratic Party of Virginia. Plus, it gets voters in the habit of showing up to vote, saves the party money and keeps things as transparent as possible for voters since party-run processes can get confusing, Raman said.

“Generally speaking, incumbents like primaries,” Farnsworth said. “The turnout is going to be larger and that usually benefits people who have greater name recognition and can raise more money.”

The biggest difference between a primary and a general election is mostly the turnout, Farnsworth said.

“On average, you’re talking single-digit turnout,” he said.

Firehouse primary, mass canvass, unassembled caucus or party canvass: One of the most straightforward ways of picking a party nominee is through a firehouse primary, which is run and funded by a political party. Firehouse primaries usually run all day at several different locations and a winner is determined by whoever gets the most votes whether it is a majority or not.

Only the parties’ own candidates are on the ballot.

“The Party Canvass is an easy-to-use method that facilitates large numbers of voters for nominations or elections,” the Republican Party of Virginia wrote in a 2015 nominating guidebook.

Mass meetings or assembled caucus: Mass meetings are like firehouse primaries that occur in one place in a shorter period of time. Anyone can vote in them, but parties can require voters to sign a statement of intent to support the party nominee.

Unlike firehouse primaries, a candidate has to get a true majority (more than 50 percent) of votes to be declared the winner. Voting can take place several times at a mass meeting until the majority is reached.

Convention: Conventions look like mass meetings but use delegates and weighted voting to pick a winner.

Local party officers determine how many delegates each precinct in a given congressional or legislative district will vote based on the party’s share of votes in past elections.

Conventions tend to bring out the “most extreme voices” in a political party, Farnsworth said.

The Republican Party laid out the process of determining how many delegates vote at a party convention: Each vote for the Republican party in a district’s precincts is counted and the committee running the convention determines a ratio for the number of delegates, like one delegate for every 500 Republican votes in a precinct.

“The ratio may be adjusted to take into account the expected attendance or the maximum number of delegates that can be accommodated in the convention facility,” the handbook reads.

The Democratic Party has a similar process to determine which areas of a district voted more heavily Democratic and then divvy up delegate votes that way, Raman said.

Voters will have to endure six more months of campaigning and return to the polls in November for the general election, which is when they pick between a Republican and Democrat candidate (in most cases).

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.