Commentary

It was past time for the Virginia Board of Elections to crack down on lax candidates

April 8, 2021 12:02 am

(Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

To hear some candidates tell it, a decision last week by the State Board of Elections is heavy-handed and reeks of political chicanery. The board’s move prevents a few Democratic Party challengers from getting on the primary ballot in contests for the House of Delegates this year. 

The three-member board, these candidates claim, won’t provide the usual extension it has allowed previously to people who file late or incomplete reports. Three Black candidates, all facing Democratic incumbents in the primary, are the people most affected. They say the board won’t give them a “do-over” customarily granted to politicos in the past. 

Two of the Democratic incumbents benefiting from this ruling are White, and one is Black. 

(Five other candidates with paperwork problems — Democrats and Republicans alike — are the only people seeking their party’s nominations in their district, allowing them to be nominated for the November ballot.)

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

At least one Democratic challenger, former state Senate aide Matt Rogers, contends racial undertones contributed to the board’s actions. He told The Virginia Mercury it was ironic that he, Richmond City Councilman Michael Jones and Cydny Neville were denied a spot when Virginia Democrats were celebrating approval of a new law to protect political power for people of color. 

“It doesn’t look good,” Rogers told me in an interview this week.

The complaints now emanating from Rogers and the other campaigns, simply put, are nonsense. 

First and foremost, the responsibility to ensure forms, petition signatures and the necessary paperwork are filed on time rests with the candidates. Dozens of candidates figured out the process with no hitches; why didn’t the three contenders?

Besides, if you can’t navigate the state’s filing process — which admittedly can be cumbersome — constituents won’t have confidence in your ability to shepherd complicated legislation through the General Assembly.

Secondly, there’s no surprise if party bosses and House Democratic caucus members prefer the “known incumbent” over a relative newcomer, as some of the affected candidates suggested. That’s the type of intraparty dispute that’s unlikely to resonate with most voters.

Nor did officials at the Department of Elections play any role in such party maneuvering. 

To Rogers’ credit, he knows he bears the blame for any shortcomings with his campaign documents. “Yes, ultimately the responsibility falls on the candidate and the campaign,” he told me.

Ditto with Jones, whose campaign had taken his paperwork to the Richmond General Registrar’s Office, instead of the Virginia Department of Elections — also in Richmond.

Seems to me Jones should’ve walked the extra steps to get the documents to the right place at the start, since this was a state contest — not local. Maybe even look at Google Maps.

Jones said he talked to an official in his registrar’s office who assured him the paperwork would be sent over promptly. That didn’t happen. “Ultimately, I have to own the mistake,” Jones said Tuesday.

Indeed. 

Still, he took a shot at the party apparatus, which he said failed to inform candidates who had paperwork deficiencies. “They could’ve been in communications with all the candidates running,” the councilman said, adding, “They don’t like Democrats challenging Democrats.”

The aggrieved candidates also said the Board of Elections routinely provided extensions — akin to a mulligan in golf — when paperwork problems cropped up. That’s true, to a point. 

In 2019, for example, it gave extensions to Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, and then-candidate Clint Jenkins, a Democrat. The state body also occasionally put the squeeze on candidates who failed their due diligence. (See my remarks on Del. Nicholas Freitas in 2019.)

This year, the board telegraphed its intent to limit the past practice of forgiveness. Robert Brink, the board chairman and a former Arlington delegate, sent a letter to both parties and both House caucuses, urging them to help prevent tardy paperwork and filings. 

“On several occasions in recent years, due to the failure of one or more candidates to comply with the Code’s requirements,” Brink wrote in the Jan. 6 letter, “the State Board has granted … extensions. However, I want to stress there is no assurance that the Board will grant an extension of the deadline in the future.” (Emphasis his)

Brink told me Tuesday afternoon that he and his board colleagues all expressed concern after similar a request in 2020 “about this process and whether this was a meaningful deadline if it were to be waived.” All three board members have completed paperwork previously as candidates or campaign managers.

Think of it this way: A police officer stops a motorist for speeding, letting him off with a warning. The officer does that for several months with each driver he pulls over. Finally, the cop gets sick of the blatant violations, and writes a ticket to an offender he’s stopping for the first time. 

That’s not unfair. The motorist shouldn’t have been speeding! He has no grounds to complain. 

“There are reasons for these deadlines,” Brink said. “They provide certainty and legitimacy to the candidate process.”

There’s no question the procedures to get on the ballot should be simpler. A state spokeswoman confirmed, for example, that forms including the certificate of candidate qualifications and petition signatures must be mailed or delivered in person to Richmond. 

We’re in the 21st century, and emails and PDFs aren’t new technology. The state should modernize the process. Brink said it would after the state purchases a new computer system; the current one has been operating since 2006.

That aging system doesn’t mean a few candidates were treated unfairly. The onus to follow the procedures and deadlines remains with them, even if they blame somebody else. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]

MORE FROM AUTHOR