Virginia GOP party voter oath ‘unenforceable,’ McDonnell says

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Gov. Bob McDonnell and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling are urging the Virginia state Republican Party to rescind a pledge requiring voters to say they intend to support the party’s presidential nominee before they are allowed to vote in the March 6 primary.

“While I fully understand the reasoning that led to the establishment of this requirement, such an oath is unenforceable, and I do not believe it is in the best interests of our party, or the commonwealth,” Mr. McDonnell said in a statement. “The effect of the oath could be one of diminishing participation in the primary, at a time when our party must be expanding its base and membership as we head into the pivotal 2012 general elections this fall.”

Before being allowed to cast their ballots, voters would have to sign a statement, often described as a “loyalty oath,” that says, “I, the undersigned, pledge that I intend to support the nominee of the Republican Party for president.”

Proponents of the pledge say that because there is no party registration in Virginia, it helps weeds out Democrats looking to create mischief.

“We can’t have Democrat Party loyalists flood our primaries to affect our nomination process,” Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Pat Mullins wrote in announcing a Jan. 21 meeting to reconsider the pledge, while reiterating the need for party registration in Virginia.

Mr. McDonnell and Mr. Bolling said they supported establishing voluntary voter registration by party as one way to encourage party loyalty.

A spokesman for Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II said the Republican attorney general has not yet taken a position on the pledge, and the decision whether to rescind it was for the party’s state central committee to make.

Morton Blackwell, a Republican National Committee member from Virginia, said he has long supported party registration — as well as the pledge of intent.

“It is not an oath; it is not a promise,” he said. “It is a statement of intent. … It will have the effect of dramatically reducing the number of Democrats who vote in the Republican primary in March who will be picking who they think is the weakest candidate who will run against Obama.”

Opponents, though, argue that it’s unenforceable, and could confuse or dissuade potential voters.

The Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union weighed in on Thursday, saying it thinks the requirement is unconstitutional and is prepared to sue if it remains in place.

“Voters who do not feel that they can make this promise in good faith will be deterred from their right to vote in the Republican primary,” Rebecca K. Glenberg, the group’s legal director, wrote in a letter to state central committee members Thursday.

The pledge has received heightened attention this year because of the failure of several Republican candidates to qualify for the presidential primary ballot. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were the only candidates to collect the 10,000 signatures necessary to qualify, though Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. are seeking a federal court to order that their names be placed on the ballot.

But it’s not new to the state. The GOP required a pledge in 1995 to support the party’s eventual nominee in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors primary race, leading to mayhem at the polls, with party officials trying to bar people from voting if they didn’t sign the pledge. One man had to be escorted from a polling place.

Elsewhere, Arlington County Democrats have approved their own pledge for the caucus later this month to fill the Arlington County Board seat of state Sen.-elect Barbara Favola, Arlington Democrat. Participants must sign a letter of intent saying they are not a member of any other political party and will not participate in the nomination process for any other party, among other requirements.

Mr. Blackwell said that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a Virginia resident, had once balked at signing the pledge on constitutional grounds but eventually relented.

The Republican Party last imposed a pledge requirement for the presidential primary in 2000, and there was no primary when President Bush sought re-election in 2004.

The party approved a pledge in 2007 only to abandon it after a similar backlash.

If the party should rescind the pledge requirement this year, it could create more headaches for the state Board of Elections. The state central committee is scheduled to meet Jan. 21 — the day after absentee voting starts. That could result in more mailings sent to instruct voters to ignore the pledge, or leave those who vote on Jan. 20 signing on to a document that will merely be voided later.

“We’re looking at how that affects the process,” said Chris Piper, manager of election services for the board.

Mr. Blackwell said that in talking with state central committee members, he has found a fairly even division of proponents and opponents of the pledge.

“The matter is up in the air,” he said. “But I think it’s a good idea. I don’t want people who are not Republicans, particularly people who are committed Democrats, to come in to muck around in Republican primaries. It’s just wrong.”

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