January 2, 2012

IF THE AIM of Virginia was to host a presidential primary that no one cared about, it seems to have succeeded. Only two candidates — former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) — qualified to appear on the ballot, and many voters may be discouraged by a foolish loyalty oath requirement by the Republican Party. It’s too late to change the requirements for access to the 2012 ballot, but a priority of the returning General Assembly should be to review a primary system that has so little regard for the interests of voters.

The failure of former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry to qualify for the March 6 primary has renewed scrutiny of the state’s cumbersome laws governing ballot access. Seen as among the nation’s most stringent, the Virginia rules demand that a candidate collect 10,000 voter signatures, an unusually high number, with additional requirements on how they can be collected, where and by whom. Clearly, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Perry, who has gone to court in a bid to get his name on the ballot, must accept responsibility for not gathering the requisite number of names; the rules are well known and have been in place for years.

Nonetheless, those most hurt by their failure are the voters. Elections are about choices, and voters are best served by having the broadest field of candidates. According to Larry J. Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, the effect of these laws in Virginia has been to feed a culture of nonparticipation. Consider that Virginia has just about the fewest number of people qualifying for the statewide ballot of any state. Which means that come March, any importance that Virginia has in helping to select the Republican standard-bearer will be diminished by the exclusion of candidates who are seen as competitive. Ohio recently recognized the need for an expanded definition of candidate viability by providing an alternative route to the ballot. Instead of gathering signatures, those who have raised at least $5,000 in each of at least 20 states are able to file a declaration to get on the ballot.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) wisely changed his mind about seeking emergency legislation to allow others on the ballot in the March primary; changing the rules midstream is unfair, so an overhaul should be done for future contests. However, when it comes to the misguided loyalty oath, the sooner it is abandoned the better. There is no registration by party in Virginia, so state election officials have approved GOP plans to require anyone voting in the state’s primary to sign a statement pledging to support the party’s presidential nominee. It is, of course, unenforceable, but it is likely to scare off potential voters. That’s why Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) should lead the effort to scrap it.