Correction: Earlier versions of this article incorrectly stated that Supervisor Jeanine Lawson (R-Brentsville) was among the board members who wanted a primary. Lawson, who is not facing a primary challenger, has opted to participate in a party canvass.
Prince William County’s electoral board decided Wednesday against allowing a Republican primary for candidates for the Board of County Supervisors after the local party committee missed a deadline for requesting it.
The 2-to-1 decision — with the board’s two Democrats siding against the Republican — means that board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), three other Republican supervisors and Sheriff Glenn Hill must seek renomination through unpredictable individual caucuses or party canvasses.
The officials, however, said they are preparing to contest the electoral board’s decision in Prince William County Circuit Court.
“We’re launching a lawsuit tomorrow,” said Stewart, shortly after the decision. “It’s very disappointing because we’ve never had such a partisan administration of election laws.”
Besides Stewart, Republican Supervisors Martin E. Nohe (Coles), Maureen S. Caddigan (Dumfries) and Pete Candland (Gainesville) are affected by the ruling. Stewart, Nohe, Candland and Hill all are facing Republican challengers. Caddigan does not have an opponent so far, but the filing deadline is March 26.
A fifth Republican board member, Supervisor Jeanine Lawson (Brentsville), does not have an opponent and is content to seek renomination through a party canvass, a county official said.
Under state law, incumbents who were nominated in a primary election are allowed to request primaries for their next campaigns as well. Most incumbents choose that option because primary elections tend to benefit candidates who have better name recognition.
Caucuses and canvasses, on the other hand, are less well-attended and often provide more opportunities for little-known challengers, who can pack the nominating sessions with supporters.
Caucuses and canvasses are coordinated by the county Republican committee, usually at a few locations and for limited hours. They generally draw much narrower participation than a dawn-to-dark primary operated by board of elections officials at polling stations in every precinct.
The controversy over which type of nominating contest to have began with a missed deadline that party leaders in the county said was an unintentional mistake.
Edgardo Cortes, head of Virginia’s Department of Elections, said the Prince William County Republican Committee filed paperwork requesting primary elections for the supervisors about 36 hours after the Feb. 24 deadline.
Consequently, “the state board of elections has not ordered a primary in Prince William County for the Republican Party,” Cortes said.
Several Republican officials said that Bill Card, chairman of the county GOP, has apologized repeatedly for the lapse. Card did not respond to requests for comment.
“It just slipped,” said Guy Anthony Guiffré, the Republican secretary of the county electoral board. “Total human error.”
Stewart and other party leaders were angry over the mistake. But with the decision by the elections board Wednesday, their ire was redirected at Democrats for refusing to grant an exception.
“Now, the story isn’t about the mess-up by a local party chairman and the debate among Republicans over which is better — a primary or a caucus or canvass,” Stewart said. “Now it’s about Democrats meddling in the process.”
Stewart and other Republicans noted that one of the Democratic elections board members — Chairman Keith A. Scarborough — has been active in county politics and ran unsuccessfully for the board of supervisors in 2003.
Scarborough, who has been an electoral board member since 2007, denied there was any partisanship involved in the decision. After reviewing state codes and talking to attorneys, he said, he and fellow Democrat Jane M. Reynolds concluded that the board would be wrong to authorize primary elections.
“In all my years on the board, we have never had this situation where we’ve carried out an election absent an order from the state board of elections that says: ‘These are the people who qualify and who should be on the primary ballot,’ ” he said. “It wasn’t a partisan vote. We looked at the code.”
During the electoral board meeting, candidates pleaded with board members to go forward with a primary election. The board then convened for a closed session that lasted nearly two hours.
Guiffré said the county attorney and some state officials said the county would be on firm legal ground if they decided to hold primary elections despite the missed deadline.
“Counsel told us we’d be within our rights to proceed as planned,” he said. “I support the law that’s written that says these candidates have a right to a primary, and now they’re being deprived of that right because someone in their party missed the deadline and it wasn’t through any fault of their own.”
Chris Crawford, Stewart’s Republican opponent, said the mix-up is emblematic of dysfunction in Prince William County government that needs to be corrected.
He and other candidates said they don’t care whether they’re nominated through a primary, but used the mix-up as an opportunity to attack their opponents.
“If I were the incumbent chairman, I wouldn’t be scared of any nominating process,” Crawford said. “If someone is afraid of that process, I think it speaks to how they feel about their performance.”
Paul O’Meara, a conservative who is challenging Nohe, said the missed deadline illustrates a candidate’s lack of thoroughness — even if the filing is the responsibility of the party committee.
“If I had someone filing for me, I would be on the phone every single day until they’ve told me they’ve done it,” O’Meara said.