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GOP presidential primary: Perry sues, RPV says candidates knew the process

Faced with a presidential primary for which only two candidates managed to qualify — and a lawsuit from one of those who didn’t — the Republican Party of Virginia is defending its petition verification procedures.

Only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul managed to submit enough voter signatures to the state party last week to qualify for Virginia’s presidential primary in March.

Some other candidates didn’t even try, but at least two — Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich — failed to submit enough valid signatures.

Pundits and bloggers have debated whether this means Virginia’s requirements — or RPV’s verification process — are too stringent, or whether Perry’s and Gingrich’s failures to qualify signify poor organization and support. And some have suggested that RPV changed its rules at the last minute, deciding to verify signatures this year when it had not done so in the past.

Not so, said RPV in a press release Wednesday evening.

State law requires a candidate for the presidential primaries to submit petitions with the signatures of at least 10,000 qualified Virginia voters, of which 400 must be from each of the state’s 11 congressional districts.

The state GOP decided — in October, according to the statement — that if candidates submitted fewer than 15,000 signatures and/or fewer than 600 signatures per congressional district, the party would verify each name. Petitions with more than 15,000 signatures and more than 600 per congressional district would be considered to have met the threshold for getting on the ballot.

The party made that decision, according to the statement, out of mathematical experience.

“In the party’s long experience with petitions, RPV h as never encountered a situation where a candidate who submitted 15,000 signatures has failed to make the ballot,” said the statement.

“RPV adopted the 15,000-signature presumption because the Party wants all of its candidates to qualify for the ballot,” the party added. “The 15,000-signature presumption served as an incentive for candidates to comply with the law with a safe margin of signatures…. RPV officials encouraged candidates repeatedly, through both counsel and field staff, to submit 15,000 or more signatures in an abundance of caution, so that they would meet the legal requirements.”

Deciding to approve petitions with more than 15,000 signatures would also speed things up for chairman Pat Mullins, who had five days over the Christmas holiday to review all the petitions and signatures.

The party’s statement also notes that no candidate protested the rules before now.

“Candidates were officially informed of the 15,000 rule in October 2011, well in advance of the Dec. 22 submission deadline,” RPV’s statement said. “The rule was no surprise to any candidate – and indeed, no candidate or campaign offered any complaints until after the Dec. 23 validation process had concluded.”

Romney was the only candidate to submit more than 15,000 signatures, and he was certified for the ballot. Paul submitted fewer than 15,000 and party officials verified every name over the course of seven hours of checking, the RPV said.

Perry, according to his own lawsuit, submitted around 6,000 names.

Now Perry is suing the state and Republican Party of Virginia chairman Pat Mullins in federal court, while Gingrich supporters are agitating to get Virginia’s ballot laws changed.

Perry’s lawsuit, filed in federal court in Richmond, complains that Virginia’s requirement that petition gatherers be qualified voters in Virginia is too stringent and is a violation of his 1st and 14th amendment freedoms of speech and free association.

His argument is similar to one made over the past year by Spotsylvania political activist Herb Lux. Lux sued the state Board in 2010 over residency requirements after the board rejected his petitions to get on the ballot as an independent candidate for the 7th Congressional District. Lux was not a resident of that district, and didn’t have to be to run for the office. But he did have to be a resident to witness and gather petition signatures. He had gathered signatures and those were thrown out by the board. Judges ruled against Lux, but at least one portion of his suit was remanded; the case is ongoing, and relates partly to whether governments have a valid reason for imposing residency requirements on petition-gatherers.

Lux and Perry have both cited a Colorado case from 1999, Buckley vs. American Constitutional Law Foundation, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that Colorado’s requirement that petition circulators be registered Colorado voters violated the First Amendment because it was a burden on political speech.

The court document says Perry filed only 6,000 signatures with RPV. In it, Perry argues that Virginia’s residency requirements limited the number of eligible petition-circulators, and that he was prevented from circulating petitions himself, or recruiting petition-circulators from out-of-state.

When the GOP rejected his petitions, Gingrich first vowed to mount a write-in campaign — which is not allowed in Virginia primaries. Now a conservative group called Citizens for the Republican is working with Richmond Democratic activist Paul Goldman about challenging Gingrich’s disqualification or convincing state lawmakers to change the law, something Republican elected leaders have told news outlets is highly unlikely to happen, at least this year.