By David T.S. Jonas
Early voting has started in Virginia for the 2021 cycle, but for tens of thousands of Virginia Democratic primary voters, their ability to choose their elected officials has been seriously curtailed.
I have little doubt that many will consider it minor in the long run, but I felt it necessary to speak out following the recent disqualification of three Democratic candidates of color for office.
The idea of state actors arbitrarily picking and choosing which years will consist of blanket reprieves and which will subject candidates to strict compliance should concern us all—if only because one day it might be your candidate or campaign that is caught by the political winds of shifting standards.
Again, I know most won’t view this as a scandal. To many, this is a story of “sour grapes” and “paperwork.”
But Virginia’s long history suggests that when public officials start to change the rules of the game on things like access to the ballot, it almost always creates an asymmetry where the most connected and powerful get proactive guidance and help to comply—while normal folks are left to fend for themselves. And of course, it can all be flipped as needed if the “wrong” folks get caught up in the fray.
To see how problematic the standards at play are here, let’s go back to 2020.
Like many Democrats, I was hoping that the State Board of Elections would refuse to grant Republicans Bob Good and Nick Freitas (who were running for Congress) an extension on their paperwork. But the Board decided—fairly or unfairly—to be lenient and granted extensions.
I didn’t like it, in part because I wanted those Republicans to lose, but mostly because I had seen this happen so many times before: when certain people fail to meet government standards they’re met with leniency, but when others don’t, they’re met with strict enforcement.
It was a major red flag, (especially after the State Board of Elections started emailing party leaders on how strict they would be this year) and I’m sorry that I wasn’t more vocal about it at the time.
Worse yet, the State Board of Elections opened themselves up to the possibility of an ex post facto decision to enforce the rules: what if in 2021 the entire Republican delegation to Congress had been misinformed by their party leaders about a piece of documentation? Would the “new” standard be enforced? Would every Virginia Republican in Congress have to run a write-in campaign because of paperwork deficiencies?
To be clear, I am fine with election officials being consistently lenient or consistently strict. But if you’re going to start strictly enforcing the rules after years of a stated policy of leniency, you need to be extremely proactive in ensuring everyone knows the deadlines/how to comply with the rules—and have the documentation ready to prove that you did.
That doesn’t appear to be what happened here.
Incumbents and those more tied to the political world appear to have been given plenty of heads-up. That’s ideal if everyone gets the same treatment, but if that same level of attention isn’t given to newcomers acting in good faith during a pandemic, then we have a problem.
My hope is that I’m missing something here, because as it stands, it looks like we need a significant series of reforms.
Ideally, there would be an independent investigation of what occurred this cycle. The General Assembly should pass legislation formalizing these now ironclad rules so ex post facto decisions can’t be made. And more than anything, we need a law that mandates that if there aren’t going to be reprieves, election staff have to proactively contact and warn candidates on paperwork deficiencies in a standardized fashion.
After all, given enough time, it’s going to be a powerful Republican who forgets to hand in a piece of paper or get a document notarized.
And if I know Virginia, the Board will suddenly have a change of heart—they’ll decide to grant leniency, citing all the pain such a policy has caused in the recent past.
We need to make that kind of Virginia an impossibility going forward.