Stricter approach to late paperwork in Va. House races could end three Democratic primaries early

By: - April 1, 2021 5:47 pm

The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Apparently fed up with paperwork coming in late, Virginia’s State Board of Elections has refused to extend a key campaign filing deadline this year, potentially affecting eight candidates running for the House of Delegates.

Three are Democrats looking to challenge incumbent lawmakers, meaning, if the decision stands, Dels. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, and Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, may not face primary challengers after all. Because they represent strongly Democratic districts, their primary opponents being disqualified on technical grounds all but guarantees the incumbents will win re-election.

The decision to insist on meaningful deadlines comes after years of officials wrestling with how to handle paperwork errors, reflecting a growing feeling on the board that candidates must take responsibility for their own campaigns and follow through to ensure their documents get to the right place.

But some of the challengers whose campaigns are now at risk feel they’re being unfairly denied a shot to run, questioning why officials would choose to take a hard line against late or missing paperwork now after reluctantly granting extensions for late filers in 2019 and 2020.

Matt Rogers, a former state Senate aide running against Hope, said there was some irony in three Black candidates being denied a spot on the ballot on the same day that Virginia Democrats were celebrating the approval of a new law meant to protect minority political power.

“We effectively just cancelled elections,” Rogers said in an interview. “And I don’t think that the members who decided to do that were not cognizant of this.”

Of the eight candidates with outstanding paperwork problems, six are Democrats and two are Republicans. Five are the only candidates seeking their party’s nomination in their district, which would still allow them to be nominated for the November ballot despite primary paperwork lapses.

Several candidates acknowledged that they bear ultimate responsibility for their own campaigns, but said some Democrats seem to get more help than others.

Election officials said they were missing multiple forms from Rogers, who announced his campaign last July. He said he mailed his paperwork so long ago he assumed everything was in order. He didn’t hear otherwise until this week, he said, when the state told local party officials in Arlington it didn’t have his financial disclosure or certificate of candidate qualification, which were due March 25.

He said he understood the House Democratic Caucus had reminded its members to get their paperwork in just before the deadline, a courtesy the party doesn’t extend to Democrats running against caucus members.

“We know what’s going on here,” Rogers said. “And people get away so often with this lie that they don’t get involved in primaries.” 

Richmond City Councilman Michael Jones, who was running against Carr, said he filed paperwork with the Richmond registrar’s office that should’ve been filed with the state elections agency.

“Obstacles such as these shouldn’t be placed in front of candidates,” Jones said in a news release Wednesday. “We asked the right questions, went to election officials in the registrar’s office and were told that our filing was intact.”

Cydny Neville, a Dumfries town councilwoman seeking to run against Torian in a Democratic primary, could not be reached for comment. In a Facebook post Thursday afternoon, Neville said she was aware of “misinformation” circulating about her campaign.

“We are working with the Virginia Board of Elections to clarify what is being reported,” she said.

Caitlin Coakley, a Democrat planning to challenge Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, who was told her paperwork was incomplete because one form was missing a notarization, said the decision to deny an extension seemed “arbitrary,” particularly when the U.S. Postal Service is suffering severe mail delays. Even though she’ll likely still be able to get on the November ballot because she’s not running in a contested primary, she said the board’s decision “has a lot of people looking at it sideways.”

“It feels like once you’re in, once you’re an incumbent, once you’ve already gotten into power, it feels like the institution tries to keep people from challenging you,” Coakley said.

Missing paperwork has been a recurring headache for the three-person elections board made up of two former state delegates, Democrat Bob Brink and Republican John O’Bannon, and Democratic lawyer Jamilah D. LeCruise.

In 2019, the board granted filing extensions to Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, and then-candidate Clint Jenkins, a Democrat who went on to flip a Republican-held House seat. But the board denied an extension that year for Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, who was forced to run a write-in campaign to save his seat.

Last year, the board granted a similar extension for several congressional candidates, including Freitas, at the time running against Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico, and now-Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell, then running to oust former Republican congressman Denver Riggleman. That extension came over the opposition of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which saw an opportunity to get rid of two GOP candidates in competitive races.

Early this year, Brink, the elections board chairman, sent a letter to both political parties and both House caucuses asking for their help in preventing tardy paperwork. He stressed the public benefit of clear deadlines that let voters know “the field is set” and said “there is no assurance that the Board will grant an extension of the deadline in the future.” 

The Virginia Department of Elections, which publishes information about what paperwork is due when, has pushed back against suggestions it should take a more proactive role in reaching out to prospective candidates to help them fix mistakes.

“At the end of the day, if people didn’t get them in I don’t think it was a lack of information sharing or knowledge sharing on our part,” Elections Commissioner Chris Piper said at Wednesday’s meeting. “They just didn’t get it in on time.”

Candidates are allowed to file campaign finance reports electronically, but the state still requires hard copies of other key documents that prove a candidate is eligible for the office he or she is seeking and disclose their financial interests so the public can spot potential conflicts. Piper acknowledged the current filing system is “convoluted,” which he hopes can be addressed as the state replaces it’s aging elections IT system.

Some of the candidates at risk of disqualification are urging the board to reconsider the decision, but state officials don’t appear to be entertaining that possibility. 

One incumbent legislator, Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, was also named as one of the candidates with paperwork still outstanding as of the March 25 deadline. But officials said they were still working under the assumption he will be on the ballot to try to defend his seat in the June 8 primary because his campaign said the documents were properly mailed by the deadline. Samirah, running against Democratic challenger Irene Shin, said Thursday that his paperwork had arrived and election officials told him he had qualified for the ballot.

It’s not clear if any others had also mailed in their documents by the deadline and were waiting for them to reach Richmond.

Randall Wolf, a Democrat looking to run against Del. John Avoli, R-Staunton, said he learned he had mailed his documents to the wrong address in February and resent them before the March 25 deadline. Where they were as of Thursday morning, he said, was unclear.

“We all know that the mail right now can easily take two to three times longer than normal,” Wolf said. “My opinion is we’ll wait and see.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.