Virginia GOP Gets Strict on Voting

By Tim Craig and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 29, 2007

RICHMOND, Nov. 28 -- The loyalty pledge to the Republican Party that Virginia voters will be required to sign if they vote in the state's GOP presidential primary on Feb. 12 is another attempt by the party to police the open primary system.

On Feb. 12, a GOP primary voter will have to sign a piece of paper that says, "I, the undersigned, pledge that I intend to support the nominee of the Republican Party for President."

Party officials said Wednesday they are worried that Democrats and independents have infiltrated past GOP nominating contests. The state does not require voters to register by political party, which means a voter can decide on the day of the primary whether to participate in the Republican or Democratic primary.

Political analysts say it is rare for a partisan voter aligned with one party to vote in the other party's nominating contest. But some conservatives say Democrats and independents helped Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) win his 1996 primary against James C. Miller III. In 2000, Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) urged Democrats and independents to vote for him in Virginia's GOP presidential primary. But McCain lost to George W. Bush by 59,000 votes.

Charles E. Judd, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, said party officials want to make it harder for non-Republicans to participate in the GOP primary.

"We feel we need the right to say to someone figuratively, 'If you intend to support the Democrat candidate in the fall general election, you probably shouldn't help us pick our candidate,' " Judd said.

Del. Harvey B. Morgan (R-Gloucester) said many Virginians want the state to require voters to register by party before voting in a primary. "There's a lot of pushing for that. This is just one step in that direction,'' he said.

The pledge, which the state Board of Elections approved Monday, includes instructions that say someone who refuses to sign it "will not be permitted to vote."

But state elections officials and other analysts said those instructions cannot be enforced because there is no way to keep tabs on whether someone keeps a promise to support the GOP ticket in the November 2008 general election.

"There is no way to police this. It's a piece of paper," said Olga Hernandez, president of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters in Virginia.

In 2000, Republicans asked state election officials whether they could require voters to sign an oath that they would support "all of the Republican Party's nominees in the next election." The State Board of Elections rejected that pledge but did allow the party to require GOP primary voters to sign a form stating they would not also participate in the Democrats' nominating contest, which was held on a separate date.

Virginia law now permits either party to request that primary voters state their intention to support the eventual nominee in the general election.

The prospect of turning away voters for refusing to sign the loyalty pledge has become fodder for Democrats, who said it's another sign that the state GOP is out of touch with Virginia's large bloc of independent-minded voters. The Democrats do not plan to ask voters to sign a similar pledge.

"It's a slap in the face to voters, saying, 'We don't trust you,' " said C. Richard Cranwell, chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party. "It's not surprising the Republican Party doesn't trust the voters."

Judd also sought to play down the promise that voters would be making when they show up at the polls. He said the pledge includes the word "intend," which he said means some voters could change their minds during the fall campaign and not feel as if they were breaking their agreement with state elections officials and the Republican Party of Virginia.

Carrie Nixon, a spokeswoman for the nonpartisan voter advocacy group New Electoral Reform Alliance for Virginia, said Virginia's system of not having people register shouldn't be changed to include loyalty oaths. She said independent voters "would resent" being left out of the voting process.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company