Infighting and voter exclusion: A look at the Republican nominating convention in Virginia

Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On May 8, the future of the Republican Party of Virginia is on the ballot.

Conservatives are choosing which candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general they want to compete in a high-stakes general election. The goal for the GOP is to take back power in a state that has been redefined by complete Democratic control. 

Yet months of infighting leading up to the contest has been a consistent source of distraction and frustration for party faithful. 

Republicans expect record turnout at their largest ever “disassembled convention.” The choice, however, not to select nominees through a primary election is excluding hundreds of thousands of likely voters from the process.

Meanwhile, accusations that the format favors certain candidates and concerns over ballot counting are threatening to sow doubt in the results before they’re even announced. 

All of this comes as the country is engaged in a broader conversation about voter access and election integrity. Those debates are shaping how this race and future ones are managed in Virginia.

What is happening on May 8? 

Convention delegates will converge at different locations to submit their ballots for the May 8 convention. Some sites will be large empty parking lots to accommodate the number of delegates. Photo from Wednesday, April 15, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

The Virginia GOP opted to go with a convention on May 8 instead of a primary to select the party’s statewide nominees for November’s general election. Republicans were required to register with their local party unit as a delegate in order to participate.

While the concept of a nominating convention is not new, the process the Republican State Central Committee (SCC) chose this year, in some ways, is unprecedented. 

At a traditional convention, thousands would gather in a centralized location but COVID-19 restrictions made that option impossible. 

Instead, delegates will line up in their vehicles between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. at 39 different locations across the state to vote. Those delegates will be able to drop off their ballots and leave when they’re finished, as opposed to waiting around for the group to reach a consensus. 

Rather than selecting a single candidate in each category, the GOP has opted to use a system called “ranked-choice voting.” Delegates can still list only one person if they prefer but they will also have the option to mark a second choice, a third choice, etc.

If no candidate gets 50% support on the first round, subsequent picks will be taken into account until someone reaches a majority.

Notably, every delegate will not have an equal say in who wins. The party has decided to weigh voting power based on previous GOP performance, meaning those who live in more reliably red areas will likely have greater influence over the outcome. 

Who does a convention benefit?

In this Sept. 8, 2020 photo, voting booths are kept socially distant at the Chesterfield, N.H. polling site. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

Mike Ginsberg, the Republican State Central Committee member who proposed a convention in December, said in an interview that a convention ensures the winning candidate has broad support among party faithful.

He added that a primary with such a large field of candidates risked coming out with a winner that only received 30-35% support at a time where the GOP needs to capture widespread enthusiasm to win statewide office for the first time in more than a decade.

“In general, I would prefer a primary but not always,” Ginsberg said. “I believe a convention would lead to a more consensus candidate.”  

Ranked-choice voting also makes it more difficult for fringe candidates, like state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), to win, according to 8News Political Analyst and Randolph-Macon College Professor Rich Meagher.

“It definitely favors some candidates over others,” Meagher said. “A nominating convention like this makes it a little more difficult for someone like Chase, whose support is narrow but really fierce, because you have to get a majority.”

Additionally, the ranked-choice system impacts the candidates’ campaign strategies.

For example, Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) recently released a campaign video asking delegates to consider him as their second choice and emailed his pledged delegates “positive words” about his opponents, moves that could help him if no one reaches a majority during the first round of counting.

Those on the Republican SCC who backed a convention raised concerns that Democrats could vote in a Republican primary, possibly influencing the results.

Virginia does not register voters by party and anyone can vote in a primary. However, supporters of a primary reassured skeptics that voters would only be allowed to take part in either the Democratic or Republican nominating process – not both.

How did we get here? 

Signs outside the entrance to the Hanover County general registrar’s office in September 2020 (Photo: 8News’ Dean Mirshahi)

The Republican Party of Virginia (RPV) went back and forth on which nominating method to adopt over a series of tense Zoom meetings that started in December, revealing the internal conflicts within the state GOP’s governing body.  

Sen. Chase made an effort to go around the committee and force a primary with a lawsuit filed against the Virginia GOP. The move was dismissed by a Richmond judge in February, effectively guaranteeing that a primary was out the window. 

Shortly after, SCC members approved a proposal for a drive-in convention at Liberty University in Lynchburg. However, an official agreement with the school was not reached before the vote, prompting confusion and an apology from RPV.

Ultimately, a site survey team found a convention at the school would be impossible due to the high volume of cars and people converging into one location. An assembled convention at a single venue was soon ruled out, causing the party to move towards a dissembled format.

The SCC decided to have multiple locations spread out across the commonwealth, with some congressional districts only having one site.

A last minute pivot on religious conflicts

Absentee voting sign outside the Chesterfield County general registrar’s office ahead of the 2020 presidential election. (Photo taken by 8News’ Dean Mirshahi)

The latest drama with the nominating convention was settled earlier this week after four rabbis wrote a letter to RPV Chair Rich Anderson asking for the opportunity to vote absentee. The group argued they could use the process already offered to active-duty members of the military. 

Keneseth Beth Israel Rabbi Dovid Asher explained that, under traditional Jewish law, things like driving and writing are off-limits on Saturdays. Therefore, participating in the party’s convention would be impossible for those who observe the Sabbath. 

“Our religious duty is to vote and be a part of this civic process,” Asher said. “This is just a matter of trying to include as many people as possible and making sure the Sabbath is not an obstacle.”

Backlash was swift when the SCC initially decided not to make accommodations for those with religious obligations. Various Republican gubernatorial candidates took to Twitter to condemn the move, including Del. Cox (R-Colonial Heights), Glenn Youngkin and Peter Doran.

The controversy even prompted Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel to intervene over the weekend. After a closed-door meeting on Sunday, the Virginia GOP panel ultimately reversed course, though some members insist McDaniel’s call wasn’t the deciding factor. 

The change means registered delegates with religious obligations will be able to cast absentee ballots on Friday, May 7, from 3 to 6 p.m., as long as they notify the party by May 4 of their plans.

That wasn’t enough for former Republican Congressman Denver Riggleman, who lost his seat to U.S. Rep. Bob Good in a convention last year.

“How about a proper open primary and not allowing corrupt little Stalins to determine who votes and who doesn’t in a manipulated convention?” Riggleman tweeted following the SCC reversal. “Only outside pressure changed this bigoted decision. I only have disgust for those who initially voted no.”

Accusations of voter suppression

Voters cast their ballots under a giant mural at Robious Elementary school on Election Day, in Midlothian, Va., Tuesday Nov. 3, 2020. Poll workers said that traffic was slow due to all the early voting in the precinct. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

While RPV has taken steps to expand participation at the convention, several barriers remain.

Early voting is still not an option for most and delegates have to attend in person.

Democrats, on the other hand, have more than a month to vote absentee in person or by mail with no excuse needed. Any registered voter can participate in the party’s June 8 primary.

For Republicans, it’s not enough just to be a registered voter. To take part in the convention, they also had to register as a delegate before their local party unit’s deadline. Each unit had their own deadlines but all have passed.

“In many of these localities, ‘we the people,’ they were only given less than a week,” Chase said. “Republicans are hurting themselves when they implement these types of restrictive nominating processes.”

The choice to go with a convention is causing challenges on the campaign trail. After months of waiting for a final call on the format, candidates had to scramble to inform voters. 

“I’ve had a number of people say they either missed the deadline, they are going to be out of town or they have to work and I just think that is disappointing,” said Youngkin, another Republican running for governor. “But again, we’ve had more people sign up for this than any convention in the history of Virginia.”  

On Wednesday, RPV Spokesperson John March reported that 53,835 delegates registered for this year’s convention, a record high made possible when the party lifted the cap on applicants for the first time in its history.

However, it represents just under 15 percent of the more than 365,000 voters who participated in the 2017 Republican Primary, according to data from the Virginia Department of Elections. That’s the last time the party selected nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. 

“So it’s not ideal. I mean, the more open the process is the better,” said former House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), who is also seeking the Republican nomination for governor. 

Cox said the primary process could be improved in some key ways that would make skeptics more comfortable. He said only registered Republican voters should be able to participate in the party’s contest and winners should be required to get a certain percentage of support. 

“With those tweaks, yeah I think primaries are the way to go,” Cox said. 

Asked to respond to criticism that conventions are “anti-democratic,” RPV Chair Rich Anderson said in an interview, “We still include those who have the greatest devotion to the party who want to participate in the process so, in that vein, they do have a voice.”

The accusations of voter suppression come as Republicans are broadly being criticized for efforts to limit election access. 

When asked if he fears the choice to conduct a convention reinforces that narrative, Anderson said, “Conventions are as old as the Republic and so I don’t think that this has anything to do with trying to preclude the opportunity of anyone to vote.” 

Republicans reject law to expand access at future conventions

House speaker Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, at rostrum, listen as House majority leader, Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, on monitor, speaks in an empty Virginia House of Delegates chamber during a Zoom Legislative session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Earlier this year, every Republican in Virginia’s House of Delegates voted against a bill to require access to future conventions for certain groups, including active-duty military, those temporarily residing outside of the United States, college students, people with disabilities and those with an infectious disease that could threaten public health.

The bill split Republicans in the Senate and was ultimately signed by Gov. Ralph Northam, though it doesn’t take effect until January 1, 2024. 

Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Stafford) came to the bill’s defense in a floor debate. 

“I don’t understand for the life of me why we, in a democracy, want to exclude the participation of people in that democracy,” Stuart said. “ It’s an anti-discrimination bill.” 

Bill Sponsor Del. Dan Helmer (D-Fairfax) clarified the law doesn’t ban conventions, something he said would likely be unconstitutional. While political parties will still have the final say over how to comply, he said they could offer an absentee or remote participation option to meet the criteria. 

Opponents generally argued that the bill was too rigid and posed logistical challenges that could effectively ban conventions moving forward.

“There were some provisions of that bill that were good but some were not,” Cox said in an interview. “You have to be really careful with secure, remote voting. I mean there have been problems in the past, certainly when you get beyond the military.” 

Helmer has voted while serving overseas and is still an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. He said, while the GOP has laid out a process for active-duty military to participate in this year’s convention, it sets too high of a bar. 

“It’s unpatriotic. It’s exclusive. It’s not what we should be about,” Helmer said. “Those who choose a primary are choosing to make it less challenging for those in war zones to participate.” 

Election integrity concerns

Republicans have criticized the use of ballot drop boxes, among other things, across Virginia as potentially being vulnerable to fraud. In this Monday, Oct. 19, 2020 file photo, a voter submits a ballot in an official drop box during early voting in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

Many Republicans running for statewide office have made “election integrity” a priority during their campaigns.

This emphasis on security comes in the wake of the 2020 Presidential Election, which the Virginia Department of Elections called the “most safe, secure and successful election” in the commonwealth’s history. However, some GOP candidates have continued to question that, repeating claims that it was “stolen” without evidence.

Last week, three candidates urged the Virginia GOP not to use a computerized system to count ballots and one has even accused another of trying to rig the convention.

Sen. Chase, Del. Cox and Youngkin sent a letter to RPV Chair Anderson and the SCC’s rules committee on April 21 calling the software solution the committee seemed to favor “untested and unproven.” In the end, the committee backed a plan to count ballots by hand.

Chase has also hurled accusations against one of her opponents, Pete Snyder, claiming that he’s hired members of the SCC to his staff in order to influence the selection of a convention. While Snyder has brought people from the SCC to his campaign, those members did recuse themselves from the process.

In an interview with 8News, Snyder dismissed the allegations against him and noted that the last time he ran in a convention, when seeking the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor in 2013, he lost.

“I think they are all absurd,” Snyder said. “”We need to stop this squabbling and focus on what voters really care about.”

Snyder also backed plans to count ballots by hand.

“I want to make sure there is an independent count. I think that’s important to every single candidate and it will benefit the party so I’m thrilled with the decisions they made,” Snyder said.

Despite his denial, Chase says she will run as an independent if Snyder wins, telling 8News she’s been taking the steps for a third-party run in case he does. Chase said she would support any other Republican in the race if they win.

“I have always supported the Republican nominee but I will not support cheaters,” Chase said.

When will we see results?

A “Vote Here” sign at the Cedarafield polling precinct on Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo: 8News)

While the SCC still has to finalize its plans for the convention on Sunday, members seem to have settled on a method to tally up delegates.

Ballots will be taken to a centralized location in Richmond to be hand-counted under video surveillance. It will be streamed online, with each campaign getting at least one person to review the process on-site. The party will also employ armed security guards to monitor the delivery and counting of ballots.

The ballots will be counted at least 10 hours a day under the plan from the Virginia GOP. It is unclear when the results will be reported, with SCC members saying it could take “several days” to declare the winners. The party has set a May 15 deadline for the results to be announced.

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