The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Prince William Republicans’ push for primaries falters in court

Corey Stewart, seen Aug. 9, 2011, is chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. (Dayna Smith/For the Washington Post)

A judge refused Friday to overturn a decision by the Prince William County Electoral Board that blocked Republican efforts to hold primary nominating contests for several local GOP incumbents who are running for another term.

After a court hearing, Judge Paul Sheridan said he doesn't believe that he has the authority to tell the electoral board to reverse the decision it made after GOP officials missed the state deadline for requesting primary elections for board of supervisors chair Corey Stewart, chairman of the county's Board of Supervisors, and three other Republicans who wanted them.

"It's not for a judge, in light of all this, to tell a political party or state and local agencies how to proceed," said Sheridan, a retired Arlington County judge brought in to hear the lawsuit, which has roiled political waters in Prince William.

Sheridan’s decision angered Stewart and his colleagues, although they said they’re unlikely to file an appeal.

“I’m not sure it’ll do any good,” Stewart said. Instead, he called on the three-member electoral board to revisit the matter and sanction primary elections instead of a caucus or firehouse canvass, which in general make incumbents more vulnerable to lesser-known opponents.

Virginia law allows incumbents to request a primary instead of a caucus or canvass, but there are deadlines for doing so.

Stewart characterized last week’s vote against holding primaries — decided by the two Democrats on the board — as a partisan attempt “to meddle in the democratic process.”

The electoral board’s chairman, Keith A. Scarborough (D), said the matter is closed unless there is further legal action. He also denied that politics played a role in the decision.

Scarborough said he still doesn’t believe that the electoral board could order primary elections because the county Republican Party chairman missed the filing deadline by 36 hours. As a result, the Virginia Board of Elections did not authorize primaries.

“If there is an order from the state Board of Elections or a court to hold primary elections, we would happily arrange to do so,” Scarborough said, referring to himself and fellow Democrat Jane M. Reynolds. Board secretary Guy Anthony Guiffré (R) already supports primary elections. “Jane and I continue to look at the law,” Scarborough added.

The state code governing elections seems unclear on whether incumbents are automatically entitled to primary elections if they miss a filing deadline.

One portion of the law says primaries shall be held for incumbents who have won earlier nominations that way, unless they say they don’t want them. Another section says local candidates must declare their intent for a primary election by the state’s Feb. 24 deadline.

Attorneys for the Republican incumbents argued that the portion guaranteeing primary elections should hold more sway than a deadline requirement.

“It is the candidate’s right, and only the candidate can waive it,” argued Shawn Sheehy, an attorney for Stewart, Supervisors Martin E. Nohe (Coles) and Maureen S. Caddigan (Dumfries); and Glen Hill, the county sheriff.

Since none of the candidates informed the state Board of Elections that they didn’t want a primary, it should have been assumed they still want one, argued Robert E. Draim, another attorney for Republicans.

William W. Tunner, who represented the Democrats on the electoral board, countered that election deadlines need to be honored to allow time for officials to print ballots and make other arrangements.

“They didn’t exercise their rights” when the request for primaries was filed late, Tunner said of the Republican incumbents.

The lawsuit also involved the electoral boards in Manassas and Manassas Park, where voters also vote for county sheriff. Those boards have not made any decisions about the nomination elections.

During the hearing, Sheridan expressed frustration over the lack of clarity in the law.

“Sometimes in the midst of this debate, I wonder why I accepted the request of the chief justice to accept this case,” the judge said, jokingly. “It’s a tough balance — a tough call.”

The issue, Sheridan concluded, is probably something the General Assembly should address.

“There is a need for clarity,” he said.

Although frustrated, Stewart said he and his colleagues are confident that they’ll still win their nominations and plan to use the controversy to whip up support from voters.

“We’re going to make it clear to all Republicans who participate in the process that this is an attempt to exclude them,” he said.