Ballot access: careful what you wish for

My latest op-ed appeared in Thursday’s Virginian-Pilot. I was intrigued by a story (mentioned in the comments on this article but repeated in a number of different places) that claims that the changes to Virginia’s election laws that occurred in 1970 came about as the result of the 1965 candidacy of George Lincoln Rockwell, who headed the American Nazi Party. Although I was unable to determine the veracity of that claim (and my editors at the paper couldn’t, either, which makes me wonder: am I a journalist?), I did run across some really interesting stuff in the process.

  • A newspaper article from 1965 which mentioned the 255 signatures Rockwell turned in. At the time, the requirement for governor was a mere 250 signatures. (I found a number of sites claiming that Rockwell paid a fee in lieu of signatures. That does not appear to be the case. I found no reference to a fee in lieu of signatures.)
  • This short article about the 1965 results, in addition to discussing Rockwell, reminded me that my good  friend’s father – “a militant segregationist and member of the John Birch Society” – was also on the gubernatorial ballot that year. Also interesting was the use of the term “right-wing Virginians.”
  • A William & Mary Law Review article (pdf) on election law reform from 1970, which explains the differences between the then-existing law and the new law. I note there is no mention of the signature requirements by Congressional district. It seems no one knows for sure when that crept into the law. The legislative history, although cited (like here), doesn’t go back far enough. Clicking on the 152 at the bottom brings up this bill, which shows the signature requirements being increased from 200 per CD to 400.
  • I discovered a new source of info – The Virginia Elections and State Elected Officials Database Project, 1776-2008 – at the University of Virginia Library. This allowed me to see the results of the 1965 election, including how much money the candidates each spent, both in 1965 dollars and in 2007 dollars. (For comparison, look at the 2005 and 2009 gubernatorial races. Yes, a lot more voters but a LOT more money spent.)

I do believe Virginia’s 10,000/400 signature requirements are going to be reduced to a more manageable level. Del. Jennifer McClellan introduced a bill in the 2011 session that would have reduced the signature requirement to 5,000. Her bill was incorporated into this one by Del. Mark Cole, which didn’t have the reduction in the number of signatures. Cole’s bill passed.

But that was only the latest effort to reduce the signatures. Back in 2003, Del. Marian Van Langingham introduced this bill (identical Senate bill introduced by Benny Lambert) which would have cut both the overall signatures and per CD signatures in half – to 5,000 and 200, respectively. The bill passed – but without any changes to the language in section 24.2-545.

Opening up Virginia’s ballots to more candidates is the right thing to do. But, as I mentioned in my article, it may very well mean that people like Rockwell gain access; thus, the op-ed’s title (which I didn’t write, by the way). I don’t see that as a problem – after all, Rockwell only got about 1% of the vote.

It was a bit mind-boggling to note that we’ve not had four candidates for governor since 1965. So while I can’t prove the connection between Rockwell and the 1970 election law changes, it sure does make a lot of sense.

Bottom line is that Virginia survived Rockwell’s run in 1965.

It’s past time to change the law.

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7 thoughts on “Ballot access: careful what you wish for

  1. What is missing from your analysis is the availability of those eligible to place an individual on the ballot. Since motor-voter and the significant effort to build the Rising American Electorate (RAE) voter base, the dynamics of signature collection has drastically been enhanced.

      1. Just saying that since the initiation of the current signature requirements, voter registration has drastically increased making it less difficult to glean the necessary petitions from the Commonwealth’s electorate.

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