Democratic Va. House candidates sue election officials in order to gather signatures by mail and online during pandemic

Capitol Connection
Ralph Northam

FILE – In this Jan. 9, 2019 file photo Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, center, arrives to deliver his State of the Commonwealth address. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia Department of Elections faces another lawsuit from Democratic candidates pursuing a contactless system to collect the required signatures to qualify for the party’s primary in June, this time from those vying for seats in the House of Delegates.

Just a few weeks ago, a similar suit was settled between two Virginia Democrats eyeing statewide office this year, Paul Goldman and Del. Lee Carter (D-Manassas), and the state’s election officials. Richmond Circuit Court Judge David Eugene Cheek Sr. approved the finalized settlement requiring the Department of Elections to develop a non-contact method — either by mail or online — for statewide candidates by Friday.

Del. Carter and six prospective House candidates filed another suit Tuesday in an effort to have the department provide the same process to those trying to make the primary ballot for the state legislature.

The latest suit against the Department of Elections cites the health and safety concerns that come with the traditional in-person gathering method and claims, as the first complaint from Carter and Goldman did, of a violation of the candidates’ First Amendment rights.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is impracticable and unsafe for Plaintiffs to obtain 125 signatures from qualified voters, face-to-face, so that the signatures may be witnessed,” the lawsuit asserts.

Plaintiffs include six candidates, Jennifer Adeli, Patrick Fritz, Rachel Levy, Karishma Mehta, Jennifer Kitchen and Dr. Mark Downey, hoping to make it on the ballot for the Democratic primary. The lawsuit names the Virginia Department of Elections, along with its commissioner Christopher Piper and deputy commissioner Jessica Bowman, and all three members of the State Board of Elections as defendants. 

Virginia House candidates must submit those signatures to the Department of Elections by March 25, a deadline the plaintiffs don’t believe they can make as they contend in the lawsuit they “are unlikely to be able to obtain the signatures required” due to the safety guidelines from the state and CDC.

Realizing their issue is time-sensitive, the plaintiffs also filed a motion seeking a temporary injunction in an effort to allow their campaigns to secure witness signatures through the mail and online.

Adeli, who hopes to unseat Del. Kathleen J. Murphy (D-Fairfax), says that even outdoor events where candidates often collect many witness signatures are not safe during the coronavirus pandemic as clipboards are passed around and many times pens are being shared.

“It was just clear it wasn’t as safe of an environment,” Adeli said in an interview.

The settlement agreed to on Jan. 25 mandates that election officials create “a form to be used for petition circulation that permits a qualified petition signer to sign a candidate’s petition while not in the presence of a petition circulator” for statewide candidates. The petition signer must provide the following information on the form: 

  • Affirmation that they are who they say they are
  • Affirmation they are a resident of their jurisdiction, including a statement of their address
  • The last four digits of their social security number 

Those who sign a petition will then transmit the form “either by mail or electronically” to the candidate or their campaign. 

“The Department of Elections is reviewing the terms of the consent decree and intend to release a form in compliance with the agreement by the date required (February 5),” a spokeswoman for the department wrote in an email to 8News on Jan. 25. In regards to this latest complaint, the spokeswoman said the Department of Elections does not comment on pending litigation.

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