Va. GOP Abandons Loyalty Pledge

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007

Virginia Republican leaders decided yesterday to scrap plans to require voters to sign a loyalty pledge before they cast their ballots in the Feb. 12 presidential primary.

The decision by the 86-member Virginia Republican State Central Committee, meeting in Crystal City, came after a public outcry over the pledge and mounting concern among party leaders that it could drive independents and moderate Republicans away from GOP candidates.

"We have heard the voice of the people," said John H. Hager, the state party chairman. "It's a new day, and our job has to be to build the party. We welcome new people into the party. We want as many people as possible participating if they share our principles and values."

The reversal occurred less than a week after the State Board of Elections approved a party request to require that voters sign a piece of paper that said, "I, the undersigned, pledge that I intend to support the nominee of the Republican Party for President."

The pledge included instructions saying that anyone who refused to sign it "will not be permitted to vote" -- a requirement that would have been difficult to enforce.

GOP officials said the pledge was designed to keep Democrats from voting in the primary, which is open to all voters, but it prompted many Republicans to call or send angry e-mails to state party headquarters this week.

Some party activists say the pledge would have sent a signal that Virginia Republicans do not want to reach out to the many voters who are not affiliated with either party but who often decide statewide races.

Virginia does not require voters to register by party. A survey in May by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University found that 30 percent of voters consider themselves to be independents.

"It's a bad policy," said David Avella, chairman of the Eighth District Republican Committee, which includes Arlington County, Alexandria and part of Fairfax County. "We ought to be a welcoming, inviting party, and I hope we take a look at [whether] this is something we want to continue. We ought to be communicating our fiscal conservatism and our ideas to bring people to our party, not force them to sign a pledge when they vote in our primary."

Virginia Republican leaders, who are gathering this weekend in Crystal City for their annual retreat, have been grappling with how to select nominees who share the party's core conservative principles yet can win elections in a state that has been leaning Democratic in recent years.

Shaun Kenney, a spokesman for the state party, said it came up with the loyalty pledge because conservatives do not want Democrats to infiltrate GOP nominating contests to vote for other candidates. But GOP officials decided yesterday that they could forgo the pledge this year because Democrats are also holding their primary Feb. 12.

"It didn't make sense to insist on a statement of support when you've got Democrats voting on the same day," said Mary Gail Swenson of Sterling, a member of the central committee.

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