"I Voted" stickers spread out on a table at a polling place in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A candidate seeking the Republican nomination to run against U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D) has filed a lawsuit against Virginia election officials that argues the COVID-19 pandemic has made it too difficult to gather the petition signatures necessary to qualify for the June primary ballot.

Omari Faulkner, a Navy reservist and former Georgetown University basketball player, filed the suit in the Richmond Circuit Court this week. The deadline for U.S. Senate candidates to file 10,000 petition signatures is Thursday.

Omari Faulkner

In the lawsuit, Faulkner and his campaign say they have collected just 3,769 signatures. They contend that social distancing guidelines that call for staying six feet away from other people have made it exceedingly difficult to approach Virginia voters and ask them to sign paperwork.

“The mandates that have been in place for the last few weeks to protect public health directly affected a campaign’s ability to contact individuals to obtain their signatures,” the Faulkner campaign said in a written statement. “With group activity limited to no more than 10 individuals and nearly all businesses closed, our First Amendment right to ballot access has been compromised.”

The suit asks the court to prevent the state from enforcing the signature requirements and allow any candidate with 3,500 signatures to qualify for the ballot. Without court intervention, the suit says, Faulkner’s name will not appear on the ballot for the June 9 primary.

Faulkner is one of roughly a half-dozen Republicans vying for the right to challenge Warner in November, expected to be a steep challenge in a state where Democrats haven’t lost a statewide race since 2009. Former U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor, R-Virginia Beach, had been considering a run against Warner, but Taylor announced in January he would run for his old House seat instead. Taylor’s departure left a field of GOP primary candidates with relatively little name recognition.

It’s not clear how many other Republican contenders might qualify for the ballot without any changes to the rules. Once the state receives each candidates’ petition signatures, they are sent to the Republican Party of Virginia for final certification. Two other Republican candidates – Daniel Gade and Thomas Speciale – have already passed the party’s signature pre-check process, according to the RPV.

Faulkner’s lawsuit — which names the Virginia Department of Elections, the State Board of Elections and the RPV as defendants — notes that election officials are already encouraging voters to cast absentee ballots in upcoming elections for public health reasons.

“The fact that State Defendants are encouraging voters to vote absentee and not travel to the polls insinuates that it is contrary to the health of Virginians to come into close contact with others,” the lawsuit states. “Virginia cannot say that for the health of voters, do not vote in person but still demand that Plaintiffs still send volunteers out to neighborhoods and businesses and collect signatures in person.”

In a response filed in court Tuesday, Elections Commissioner Chris Piper said he had received two sets of paperwork from Republican candidates that claimed to meet the 10,000-signature threshold. One was received on March 9, and the other came in March 13. Piper said signature paperwork from a Democratic candidate, presumably Warner, was also received March 13.

Attorney General Mark Herring’s office also filed a response Tuesday saying the state objected to Faulkner’s demand for attorneys’ fees but took no position on his request to loosen ballot access rules due to the coronavirus crisis. State election officials “stand ready to comply” with any court order, the attorney general’s office said in the filing

Faulkner, a Loudoun County resident, is being represented by Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky, the law firm founded by state Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier.