A judge has rejected a last-ditch bid by four Republican presidential candidates to get on Virginia’s GOP primary ballot, leaving the March 6 contest only to front-runner Mitt Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
In his ruling, federal District Court Judge John A. Gibney Jr. delivered a judicial spanking to the four candidates — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. — saying their complaint amounts to sour grapes.
“They knew the rules in Virginia many months ago,” Judge Gibney said in turning down the request to reopen the process. “They waited until after the time to gather petitions had ended and they had lost the political battle to be on the ballot; then, on the eve of the printing of absentee ballots, they decided to challenge Virginia’s laws. In essence, they played the game, lost, and then complained that the rules were unfair.”
His decision allows absentee ballots to go out as planned with just Mr. Paul and Mr. Romney as the only two listed candidates.
The four candidates had argued that Virginia’s requirement that candidates secure 10,000 signatures, and that of those, 400 signatures come from each of the state’s 11 congressional districts. The rules also require that those gathering the signatures be residents of Virginia.
Two of the candidates didn’t file petitions by the deadline, while the other two filed petitions that were ruled not to have met the signature requirement.
Judge Gibney said that but for the timing, he would have ruled in favor of the challenge to the residency requirement, but would have still upheld the 10,000-signature rule.
Joseph M. Nixon, counsel for Mr. Perry, argued the case dealt with voting rights, the “cornerstone of democracy.” He said that the residency requirement for ballot-gathers was a violation of free political speech.
“The purpose of speech,” he said, “is to affect the outcome of how we choose to govern ourselves. The process is meaningless if the list of candidates is unconstitutionally and arbitrarily restricted.”
E. Duncan Getchell Jr., Virginia solicitor general, though, argued that the defendants failed to demonstrate that they were likely to succeed on the merits of the case, a prerequisite for a temporary injunction that would place them on the ballot.
The state would also violate the statutes in a consent decree with Justice Department if they added more names to the ballot, he argued.
Mr. Romney’s campaign has argued that with the exception of Mr. Paul, the rest of the field is not built for the long, national campaign that the Republican presidential primary is supposed to entail, and they point to ballot access as a key test.
Mr. Huntsman, for example, failed to get on the ballot for Arizona’s Feb. 28 primary, even though that state borders the state he governed for four years, and even though the state’s requirements are so lax that nearly two dozen other candidates managed to make it.
The campaigns for Mr. Perry and Mr. Gingrich hired petition-gathering firms to aid them in the process, but the Huntsman campaign did not after learning the cost would be in the range of $100,000.
Donald Palmer, secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections, was called by the state as a witness, and testified that the last day for a candidate to get their name on the ballot was January 9 because of the consent decree entered into with the Justice Department after some ballots failed to get out on time in 2008 and 2010.
Judge Gibney, at times, seemed incredulous that, if more candidates were to be added to the ballot, new ones couldn’t be printed in a timely manner.
But Mr. Palmer said that some of the reprinted ballots wouldn’t be ready in 14 days. Military and overseas absentee ballots must be sent out at least 45 days before the election, putting the deadline at January 21.
Gov. Bob McDonnell budgeted $3 million for this year’s primary, Mr. Palmer said, and it would cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars” if the ballot was changed at this point.
The Virginia ballot battle quickly gained national attention, and Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II indicated that he would support backing emergency legislation to get more candidates on the ballot.
He backed away from his statement the next day, however, saying that the state’s stringent ballot-access rules should be changed, but for future elections only.
Mr. Nixon said after the Friday hearing that it was too early to decide on whether to appeal, and that he planned to consult with his client, Mr. Perry.
• Sherfinski reported from Richmond.