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Virginia’s petition rules: A fair test for the candidates

Harold Hubschman is president of SpoonWorks, a Massachusetts-based political consulting firm.

There has been much gnashing of teeth in Virginia’s political circles since most of the Republican candidates for president didn’t make it onto the state’s ballot for the upcoming primary. Critics blame Virginia’s nomination signature requirement for being unreasonably difficult and want it reduced or eliminated. But Virginia shouldn’t fix something that isn’t broken. The process is not “unconstitutionally onerous,” as some have complained. Those candidates missed getting on the ballot because of their own failures at basic organizing.

My firm specializes in running signature drives for political candidates and ballot initiatives. In our experience, Virginia’s signature requirements are no harder than in many other states. They’re actually easier than in some. In Massachusetts, where we’ve run many signature drives, Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, Green, Natural Law and Constitution party candidates have satisfied petitioning requirements tougher than Virginia’s more than 100 times since 2000.

We always tell clients to view the signature process as an opportunity to organize. For a candidate with little money or campaign infrastructure, collecting signatures can help recruit volunteers and get noticed. A petitioner standing at a busy street corner will typically interact, if only for a few seconds, with 500 to 1,000 passersby in an afternoon. If the candidate’s message resonates with some segment of voters — and each candidate who missed the Virginia ballot has such a natural base — at least one or two of those thousand passersby per day will hear their own issues and concerns reflected in the petitioner’s pitch and become receptive to volunteering for that candidate.

In Virginia, GOP presidential candidates have 25 weeks, starting July 1, to collect a minimum of 10,000 valid signatures, with a minimum of 400 from each of the state’s 11 congressional districts. Allowing a cushion for invalid signatures, each candidate should collect 16,500 signatures, or an average of 1,500 signatures per district. A motivated volunteer in an area with reasonable foot traffic, or going door to door in a typical suburban neighborhood, can expect to collect at least 50 signatures per afternoon. In other words, five volunteers could collect the 1,500 signatures to knock off one congressional district in three weekends.

Virginia should not eliminate or reduce its nomination signature requirement. A candidate who wants access to the presidential ballot should be required to show some basic political ability, and persuading five volunteers per congressional district to give their candidate six days between July 4 and Christmas is not an unreasonable burden. But two reforms would significantly improve the process.

One is known in the petitioning business as open access. The best places to find lots of potential signers are the common areas inside malls and in front of supermarkets and big-box stores. Some states, but not Virginia, have laws that require such commercial venues to give petitioners reasonable access to their common areas during business hours. In Virginia, however, the biggest challenge is simply finding locations with good foot traffic. Virginia should grant petitioners the right to collect signatures in these areas. Signature drives are meant to show that candidates can persuade voters to support them, not that their signature drive managers know how to find busy street corners.

Another helpful petitioning reform would repeal the law that only Virginia residents are allowed to collect signatures. Petitioner residency requirements have been struck down as unconstitutional in every state where they have been challenged. Candidates who are new to Virginia should be able to bring home-state volunteers who know them best, and out-of-state supporters they’ve recruited along the way, to begin spreading the word.

Collecting signatures to get onto state primary ballots serves the same purpose as the kickoff contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — a threshold test for candidates to show they can be competitive. Moreover, the signature window is still open in enough states for a new candidate to mount a viable campaign. So if there’s someone out there who wants to run for the Republican presidential nomination and could generate enough heat to recruit volunteers, signatures could be their way in.

The writer is president of SpoonWorks, a Massachusetts-based political consulting firm.

 
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