Virginia ballots skimp on party ID

October 25, 2011

When Virginians go to the polls next month, candidates for state Senate and House of Delegates will have D’s and R’s by their names.

But that county council candidate who got the nod from the local Democrats? The aspiring sheriff backed by the GOP? If voters can’t remember the candidates’ party affiliations, the ballot won’t clue them in.

“It is something that does perplex voters,” said Matthew Abell, who works in election administration at the Virginia State Board of Elections. “I know from going through past election years, the calls from citizens who say, ‘My ballot was wrong. Party ID wasn’t present in my local races. It just stopped halfway down.’ ”

Under state election law, ballots list party affiliation only for federal, statewide and General Assembly races. The idea is that omitting the party designation helps keep partisan politics out of local races.

But in reality, candidates for local offices file as Republicans and Democrats and tout party endorsements in campaign literature. By law, school board offices are nonpartisan, so those candidates must file as independents. Even so, school board candidates can and do collect and advertise party endorsements.

“That horse has already left the barn,” said Del. Thomas A. “Tag” Greason (R-Loudoun), who this year introduced a bill to list party affiliation for local races across the state. The bill died in a House subcommittee, even after it was amended to cover only Loudoun County.

“As I would go door to door during my campaigns, people will say, ‘Hey, how come there’s an R next to your name and a D next to [Sen.] Mark Herring’s name, but I have no idea what’s going on with the supervisors?’ ” Greason said. “It’s just more information. People can use it however they want to use it. Providing the information shouldn’t be a bad thing.”

Greason said opponents of his bill told him: “ ‘We don’t want to make our local races so politically charged.’ I thought to myself, ‘When was the last time you saw a local race?’ ”

Before 2000, when the law changed. Virginia ballots did not list party affiliation for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general or General Assembly candidates either.

Martha Brissette, policy analyst for the state elections board, noted that some parts of Virginia have historically tried to distance local races from state and national politics by scheduling municipal elections in May instead of November.

“Some cities and towns now have the option to move [elections] to November,” Brissette said. “People that like them in May express concern, ‘Well, that will make them partisan.’ ”

Some say partisan politics is precisely what’s behind objections to adding party affiliation to down-ballot races.

Del. Harry R. “Bob” Purkey (R-Virginia Beach) led the successful push more than a decade ago to identify statewide and General Assembly candidates by party. He said opposition to his bill mostly came from Democrats, who for decades had dominated state politics and didn’t want party affiliation to show up on ballots just as their brand was fading.

“One party basically controlled the state for years and years, and they saw very clearly it was becoming more of a two-party area,” Purkey said. “They thought it was to their advantage not to have party affiliation, and they fought it like anything.”

The measure just squeaked by, Purkey said, and only because he had persuaded a conservative Democratic friend to make a strategic trip to the restroom to avoid voting with his party.

There have been several attempts over the years to expand party affiliation to local races, including Greason’s bill last year. Greason said he intends to bring the matter up again.

“Consistency matters in so many different issues,” Greason said. “Why aren’t we being consistent in that regard?”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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