Campaign signs at a polling location in Buckingham County, Va., November 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

The Republican Party of Virginia’s attempts to plan a party-run, statewide nominating contest during a global pandemic have been so choppy it’s still unclear if the May 8 drive-up convention at Liberty University will happen as planned.

And it might only get more complicated from here.

Legislation passed by the General Assembly this year will require political parties that choose to forgo state-run primaries to make arrangements for absentee voting starting in 2024, a rule some lawmakers believe will make conventions so difficult they’ll cease to exist.

The bill now awaiting Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature requires political parties to make their own accommodations for active-duty military members, people temporarily residing in a foreign country, college students, people with disabilities and anyone who has or has been exposed to an infectious disease that poses a public health threat. In other words, people who couldn’t show up in person for a convention or firehouse primary would have to be given some way to participate remotely.

“This bill ensures that a soldier serving in Afghanistan and the other 90,000 Virginians serving on active duty aren’t deprived of their ability to participate in selecting their nominee,” Del. Dan Helmer, D-Fairfax, a U.S. Army veteran who sponsored the bill, said as he presented it in the House of Delegates.

In an interview, Helmer said his bill isn’t meant to ban conventions altogether. But he acknowledged it might incentivize parties to just choose primaries in the future since state-run elections come with a built-in absentee process.

“It’s a hundred percent easier to use the state process,” Helmer said. “But it’s also a hundred percent possible to do another path if it is important to you.”

The legislation, which has exceptions for fast-paced special elections and nominations to replace candidates who die or withdraw, would cover federal, state and local nominating contests starting in 2024. Any absentee voters would have to be eligible to participate under the party’s other rules, meaning Republicans could require absentee participants to meet loyalty criteria meant to weed out anyone deemed insufficiently Republican.

The bill passed the House along party lines, with Republicans unified against it. It sparked a lengthy debate on the floor of the Senate, where several Republicans said they saw it as a commonsense step to make democracy more accessible.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, said he wished the proposal went further to include accommodations for the elderly.

“I don’t understand for the life of me, why we in a democracy want to exclude the participation of people in that democracy,” Stuart said. “That’s all this bill says. It’s an anti-discrimination bill. You cannot set up barriers for people to vote or participate in a nominating contest.”

Other Republicans warned it would create so much technical difficulty conventions would be virtually impossible.

“How do you have absentee voting in a convention when one candidate is eliminated on the first ballot?,” asked Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Salem, one of 10 Senate Republicans to oppose the bill. “Does the convention suspend and allow for absentee ballots to arrive? How would that work?”

Answering Suetterlein, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said it would be up to party organizers to solve that problem via ranked-choice voting or some other system allowing remote participation.

“Technology is a wonderful thing,” she said.

Helmer first introduced the proposal before the state GOP’s latest convention troubles, but he said the Republicans’ plan for an in-person convention highlights the problem he’s trying to solve.

“How can you call yourself pro-military and vote to deny military access to a nominating process?,” he said.

After a lengthy and at-times heated debate over its 2021 nominating method for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, the RPV’s State Central Committee seemed to bring closure last month by voting for a convention at a to-be-determined Liberty facility in Lynchburg. The next day, Liberty officials were quick to note they had not yet struck a deal and worked out logistics with the GOP.

The plan, which drew complaints from some Republican officials about a perceived lack of accessibility, looked even more uncertain last week as RPV Chairman Rich Anderson reported in an open letter that, after a site visit and talks with Liberty officials, a plan to hold the convention at a single off-campus parking lot was “not feasible” given the number of vehicles expected. 

Without entirely ruling out other options at Liberty, he said he planned to call a new meeting to discuss “a convention configuration that employs satellite locations across Virginia.”

“To be frank, I and most Republicans are fatigued by this process,” Anderson wrote.