Richmond judge loosens petition signature rules for GOP U.S. Senate primary due to coronavirus

A voting sign at Pemberton Elementary School in Henrico,, November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)

A Richmond judge has granted a Republican candidate’s emergency request to lower the petition signature requirements for the GOP’s upcoming U.S. Senate primary because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Omari Faulkner — one of roughly a half-dozen Republicans seeking the nomination to challenge U.S. Sen, Mark Warner, D-Va., in the fall — filed a lawsuit this week asking the court to suspend a law requiring candidates to gather 10,000 petition signatures from Virginia voters in order to have their name on the ballot for the June 9 primary. The rule exists to force candidates to show organizational aptitude and weed out those who can’t demonstrate they can run a credible campaign.

Omari Faulkner is seeking the GOP nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia. (Faulkner campaign)

On Wednesday, Richmond Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant granted Faulkner’s request, ordering the state to accept any Republican candidate for the primary who files more than 3,500 petition signatures. Faulkner’s campaign had told the court it had collected 3,769 signatures and argued it was unreasonable to expect the campaign to meet the normal threshold due to social distancing guidelines that call for people to stay at least six feet away from each other.

Marchant did not strike down the law entirely and limited his order only to Republican candidates in the 2020 U.S. Senate primary.

“In normal circumstances, a signature requirement in order for an individual to be placed on the ballot is a light burden,” Marchant wrote. “However, the circumstances as they exist in the Commonwealth of Virginia and across the United States are not normal right now.”

The deadline for candidates to file petition signatures is Thursday.

Two other Republican candidates competing with Faulkner for the GOP nomination — Daniel Gade and Thomas Speciale — had filed enough signatures to pass the Republican Party of Virginia’s pre-check process. Warner also filed well over 10,000 signatures with no trouble, according to his campaign.

Gade sought to intervene in Faulkner’s lawsuit, arguing it would be unfair to change the rules to accommodate Faulkner when other candidates were able to get their signatures in early and other potential candidates might have run had they known they wouldn’t need 10,000 signatures.

“The other candidates that have filed have spent vast resources accomplishing the requirement of the code, to allow a candidate on the ballot without meeting those requirements, would grant an unfair advantage to said candidate,” Gade’s attorney wrote in the campaigns’ court filing.

But Marchant found that the public health emergency prevailed above other considerations, creating a burden for Faulkner and all other Republican candidates that “precludes them from freely associating at the highest level with the political party of their choice.” The judge said his order would only apply to Republican campaigns because no Democratic representatives were involved in the suit.

Warner is not facing a Democratic primary challenger and is seen as a strong favorite to win re-election this year.

Attorney General Mark Herring’s office did not take a position on Faulkner’s request for a temporary suspension of the petition signature requirements limited to one primary election.