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Cuccinelli seeks bipartisan backing to ease ballot access rules in Virginia

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RICHMOND — Amid fierce partisan debates over how, when and in which districts Virginians can vote, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II is working to assemble a rare bipartisan coalition to decide who gets on the ballot.

Cuccinelli, the likely Republican nominee in this year’s gubernatorial race against presumptive Democratic choice Terry McAuliffe, has become one of the more polarizing figures in commonwealth politics. Beloved by conservative activists and disliked by many Democrats, Cuccinelli is not often known as a consensus-builder.

Yet Cuccinelli said he is hoping he can get lawmakers to set aside ongoing squabbles over redistricting and electoral college legislation to change Virginia’s laws for ballot access, the subject of wide criticism in recent elections. The critics have included former Virginia Democratic Party chairman Paul Goldman, who has teamed up with Cuccinelli for the effort.

“I tend to think from my time in the Senate that bills like this come across and there’s a certain amount of relief to be able to agree on things,” Cuccinelli said in an interview with The Washington Post, predicting his plan will be welcomed by “an overwhelming majority” of lawmakers.

But the atmosphere in Richmond is particularly tense since Senate Republicans made a surprise attempt last week to redraw the Senate district map in their favor. A Senate committee advanced a bill to change the way Virginia apportions its electoral votes, giving sway to Republicans (though that measure now appears likely to fail).

Republicans also have sought to tighten the state’s voter ID laws, while Democrats have mostly been stymied in their efforts to expand absentee voting and address long lines at polling places.

Cuccinelli has declined to comment on election-related measures before the General Assembly and would say only that his office would take a look at measures lawmakers approve.

He said his own plan calls for packaging bills offered by Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Fredericksburg), Del. Richard L. Anderson (R-Woodbridge), Del. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Richmond) and Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke). All four measures are expected to receive subcommittee or full committee consideration this week.

Most notably, his proposal would reduce the number of qualified signatures needed to get on the state’s presidential primary ballot from 10,000 to 5,000, with just 200 apiece from each of the state’s 11 congressional districts rather than the current 400.

Those thresholds have drawn increased scrutiny in recent years, particularly since multiple prominent presidential candidates failed — or didn’t even try — to qualify for the 2012 Republican primary.

“We, the voters in Virginia, lost the opportunity to choose among all the serious major party candidates,” said Cuccinelli, who has garnered national attention with lawsuits against the federal government, challenges to scientists on climate warming and advice to colleges against nondiscrimination policies for homosexuals.

The proposal also would set up an appeals process for candidates whose signatures have been rejected by the State Board of Elections, and it would require party chairmen to certify that they have closely reviewed candidate petitions before they are submitted. It would also make clear that all qualified voters can submit valid petition signatures, not just “active” voters.

“Virginia has one of the most onerous ballot access requirements in the nation,” said Christopher Newport University political science professor Quentin Kidd, explaining that the 10,000-signature threshold in particular is “a high hurdle” compared with other states.

When Cuccinelli and Goldman gathered political veterans from both parties to get their input, Goldman said, there “was consensus that we ought to reduce the [signature] burden, so cutting it in half was a number we could all agree on.”

Despite the current climate in Richmond, Kidd said, “the stars may be well-aligned for the two parties to come together to reform the rules.”

Many Republicans were unhappy that their 2012 primary ballot included only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, Kidd said, while “Democrats are inclined to support any sort of reform that makes participation easier, and this isn’t something that would help or hurt either party any more than the other.”

Cuccinelli is eager to showcase his ability to work across the aisle, and Democrats may be hesitant to do him any favors as they seek to portray him as too partisan to be an effective governor.

Yet Goldman said he believed the two parties could work together here, despite the potential obstacles.

“The ones you can solve, you can’t let them be held hostage to things we can’t solve,” Goldman said.

© The Washington Post Company