RICHMOND — Virginia’s Republican Party on Saturday scrapped plans to use a party loyalty pledge in the March 1 GOP presidential primary, sending elections officials scrambling because absentee voting was already underway.
“We unanimously voted to rescind it,” John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, said after a meeting of the State Central Committee.
In September, the party decided to require voters to sign a “statement of intent” before taking part in the primary.
That idea, which has been proposed several times in recent years, caused controversy in Virginia, one of about 14 states that hold “open primary” elections in which voters do not register by party. Supporters have said that the measure would cut down on Democrats who want to make mischief by voting in GOP primaries.
GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump drew national attention to the pledge by calling it a “suicidal mistake” that would turn away voters disenchanted with traditional party politics — the very newcomers who might be drawn to his unconventional presidential bid.
His supporters filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Virginia on behalf of three pastors who support Trump. Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled against them.
The State Central Committee described its about-face in terms unrelated to Trump, accusing Virginia’s Democratic governor and attorney general of meddling with the language that the GOP had proposed.
“The SCC motion made clear that it was motivated not by any disagreement about the Party’s right of free association under the First Amendment to the US Constitution, but in recognition that Governor Terry McAuliffe’s administration and Attorney General [Mark] Herring had purposely created a situation designed to confuse voters intending to participate in the March 1 Republican Presidential Primary,” the party said in a written statement.
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy called the claim “laughable.”
“It is unbelievable that the Republican Party of Virginia would seek to pin this calamity on anyone other than themselves,” Coy said.
Herring’s office called the accusation “a hilariously ham-handed attempt” to divert anger within the Republican Party over the loyalty pledge away from party leaders.
“The RPV forced the state to waste taxpayer resources and time to defend the implementation of their loyalty oath, and they were happy to ride our coattails until they realized they had an internal revolt on their hands,” said Herring’s spokesman, Michael Kelly.
With absentee voting already underway, the state Board of Elections must figure out what changing the voter instructions means for ballots that have been cast.
“The board will have to take action,” said Edgardo Cortes, director of the Virginia Department of Elections. “We are trying to do that as expeditiously as possible.”
Despite the confusion, there was some satisfaction in Trump’s camp that the change had been made.
“I think it was a good move on the State Central Committee’s behalf, and it does show that they listened to the concerns that the Trump campaign members had made about the pledge,” said Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and of Trump’s Virginia campaign. “The state Board of Elections has to vote on it now.”
The move also drew praise from state Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax), who has introduced legislation this year to ban loyalty oaths for both parties. His bill comes before a Senate committee Tuesday.
“Having a loyalty oath was a bad idea from the beginning,” he said. “This is a bipartisan problem.”