The Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
As a self-described “progressive populist” who already ran for the General Assembly three times as a Green Party candidate or independent, Jeff Staples knows he probably wouldn’t win even if state officials let him on the ballot.
But he remains baffled as to why the State Board of Elections refused to do so despite proof the paperwork error preventing him from running against Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, wasn’t his fault.
“I’m not a big player,” said Staples, a 59-year-old Chesapeake resident who works in automotive repair. “If I belonged to a party then they would be all over it. But since I’m a reformist kind of guy they’re not biting.”
The missing financial disclosure form that prevented Staples from qualifying for the ballot was due to the Department of Elections on June 8. On the morning of June 2, the first day the filing window was open, Staples emailed Chesapeake Registrar Mary Lynn Pinkerman saying his form was ready to be delivered.
“Do I also need to send a copy to Richmond?” he asked, referring to the state elections agency.
“No it just comes here,” Pinkerman replied.
That was incorrect, as Pinkerman now acknowledges. In an interview, Pinkerman said she was mistakenly looking at filing information for local candidates.
“I feel absolutely horrible. It has made me so sick that my human error has cost this man his spot on the ballot,” Pinkerman said. “It could’ve so easily been rectified in my mind.”
Election officials publish bulletins explaining filing rules and deadlines for candidates, and those instructions are easily accessible on the state’s elections website.
Staples said he knew the COVID-19 pandemic had forced changes to election procedures, and he assumed filing the form locally instead of in Richmond was one of them.
“She’s an election official. She should know. So I took it to her,” he said.
Staples sent the email exchange to state officials ahead of a June 30 meeting where the elections board heard a variety of paperwork-related appeals. Though the board voted to qualify several party-backed candidates despite getting late nomination forms from local party officials, the meeting ended with no discussion and no votes on the Staples case and a handful of others.
In an interview, elections board Chairman Bob Brink said the board is bound by state laws that don’t give them much flexibility to handle paperwork errors on a case-by-case basis.
“If the board grants an extension to one candidate who failed to file those forms, the board is required to grant it to all candidates, state and local,” Brink said.
State law gives the elections board the power to extend filing deadlines for some forms for 10 days. But it requires the board to notify every candidate with missing or late paperwork. Because of that, the board has no authority to make exceptions only for candidates who might have more valid excuses than others.
This year, Brink declared that candidates and political parties should no longer count on the board granting extensions as a matter of routine.
“If they have any questions, candidates should consult the appropriate bulletin put out by the department,” Brink said, summing up the message he had already tried to send.
In the past, board members have suggested the deadlines stop being meaningful if filing extensions are routinely granted, and that too much leniency is unfair to candidates who manage to follow the rules. Many who work in state politics feel figuring out campaign paperwork is a basic test of competence that pales in comparison to the logistical demands of fast-paced legislative sessions.
But would-be candidates who have been on the wrong end of the board’s no-exceptions policy argue it means elections can effectively be cancelled over technicalities, leaving voters with fewer choices or no competitive contest at all. Though Democrats have passed a series of bills to make voting easier, there has been less attention on ballot access issues that often involve outsider candidates who lack institutional backing.
When Richmond City Councilman Michael Jones failed to qualify for the ballot in a potential Democratic primary matchup against Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, said he also submitted paperwork to his local registrar by mistake and found out too late that it was supposed to go to the state office. Two other Democratic hopefuls were also disqualified ahead of primary season.
Staples, who has been involved with the Sierra Club, says his top issues are environmental protections and getting big money out of politics.
“I like to see the little guy get ahead and I like to see the Virginia I grew up in stay clean and useful and healthy, all that good stuff,” Staples said.
He ran against Knight in 2015, receiving almost 30 percent of the vote while spending just a few thousand dollars. He ran for the House again in 2017. He challenged Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake, in 2019, getting about 19.6 percent of the vote.
He says he runs outside the two-party system partly just to try to “influence some of the behavior of the people I run against.”
As of now, he won’t get the chance to try that in 2021, but he says he’s exploring the possibility of a legal challenge. In his letter to the elections board, Staples commended Pinkerman for doing a “masterful job” as the Chesapeake registrar. But he said he wasn’t even aware the state had identified a problem with his paperwork until he heard about it from a reporter from his local paper, the Princess Anne Independent News.
“I guess they really think that they don’t need to communicate with the people that they’re serving,” Staples said. “But I would think we need to change that.”
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