Query: How many House of Delegates seats went uncontested in this week’s election? Thirty out of a hundred? Maybe 50? (Hint: There were just less than 50 in 2013.)
That’s right, nearly two-thirds of the seats in the lower house of the Virginia General Assembly had only one person on the ballot. In the Virginia Senate, only 15 of 40 races were uncontested, perhaps indicating the parties’ interest in control of the upper body. It’s also virtually certain the House won’t change parties.
This is an unacceptable number of one-person elections in our Commonwealth. People might cite redistricting, money in politics, Citizens United, the frequent scorched-earth manner of politics today, and general apathy or cynicism about the political process — and all those things do play a lesser or greater role in the uncontested races in Virginia. But I suggest an important issue is ballot access by third parties, especially in statewide races.
Redistricting and money in politics don’t adequately answer the question. If we look at other races such as those for boards of supervisors and school boards, or constitutional officers such as sheriff, commissioner of the revenue or commonwealth’s attorney, we still see too many single-candidate races.
In Hanover County where I live, no constitutional officer has been challenged in a general election in either 2011 or 2015. In King William County, there are five school board seats and none has an opponent. Money in politics ought not to deter a determined hopeful for a school board seat.
Even at the statewide level, it cost Robert Sarvis between $20,000 and $30,000 to gain the 10,000 signatures need to get just him — not his Libertarian party, just him — on the ballot for governor in 2013. Sarvis’ petition drive actually became an issue in the campaign when he was accused — wrongly — of being a Democrat plant because an alleged bundler for President Barack Obama helped pay for his ballot-access drive.
Virginia has some of the most restrictive ballot-access laws in the nation. Either a political party must get 10 percent of the vote in a statewide election, not counting ones for president, or each statewide candidate for that party must get 10,000 signatures.
Only a handful of states that use percentages have a higher percentage. Alabama requires 20 percent, Oklahoma requires 10 percent, and New Jersey requires 10 percent of the vote in the combined elections of the lower house of the legislature — something that hasn’t happened since before the First World War. Most states that use percentage of vote have 5 or less percent.
Each third-party candidate in a statewide race also must get the signatures, and not use one petition for a slate of hopefuls. That would be 30,000 signatures for the three statewide elections. As a practical matter, it’s more like 45,000 to be safe. Collecting the signatures for the party is prohibited, and also the ballot access for the petitioning party lasts only for that election. That’s unless you get the 10 percent. But if you get the 10 percent, your party has access for four or eight years, depending on your reading of the last two statewide elections. The party with ballot access also can use its power to nominate candidates without petitions to vacant seats, which is how professor Jack Trammell got on the ballot against now-Rep. Dave Brat in 2014.
What I would propose is threefold:
First, lower the threshold for third parties to 5 percent in a statewide election. That still places the Old Dominion in the upper echelon of states.
Second, let the party collect signatures — instead of each candidate. The trade-off for the party getting ballot access without signatures would be more signatures to get — say, 15,000 or 20,000. The party could select candidates to run in uncontested races.
Third, if the party collects the signatures it would have two to four years of ballot access unless it gets 5 percent in a statewide race in that four-year period.
All these uncontested elections in Virginia might be nice when the candidates are favorites of yours without opponents, but they’re corrosive to the process in that the incumbents feel less accountable to the people. Such elections also prevent candidates from having mandates when they go to Richmond. Uncontested elections discourage voting even for the occasional contested race on the same ballot.
Certainly we need to evaluate gerrymandering, money in politics and other issues to ensure more effective elections. But better ballot access should be an issue some member or members of the General Assembly should make their own — and push it until it’s passed. I also appeal to Gov. Terry McAuliffe to add better ballot access in his State of the Commonwealth address at the start of the 2016 General Assembly. It won’t matter if you win the right to vote if you only have one choice. S
Elwood Earl “Sandy” Sanders Jr. is a lawyer, political activist and blogger at Virginia Right Blog, found at varight.com.
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