9 months after GOP candidate won similar case, two Virginia Democrats sue to change ballot signature rules during the pandemic

Virginia News

(from left to right) This Monday Feb. 12, 2018 file photo shows Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, as he looks over legislation during the House session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File). Paul Goldman talking with 8News in 2017.

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Two Virginia Democrats eyeing statewide office next year filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Richmond Circuit Court to change certain ballot requirements for candidates hoping to qualify for the party’s primary in June, arguing that having to collect 10,000 signatures during a potential coronavirus peak violates their First Amendment rights.

The plaintiffs in the suit, Paul Goldman, one of the 12 contenders in the race for lieutenant governor, and Del. Lee Carter (D-Manassas), who has submitted paperwork to run for governor but has not formally announced his plans, seek to reduce the signature threshold to be on the ballot for the Democratic primary on June 8, 2021.

State law says prospective candidates for governor or lieutenant governor must gather at least 10,000 signatures for their name to make it on the ballot. The suit from Goldman and Del. Carter aims to drop it to 2,000.

Candidates must wait until Jan. 1, 2021 to begin collecting signatures for the petition process and then have a March 25 deadline to submit them. “This leaves a signature collection window of less than 90 days,” the lawsuit states.

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. It claims that while there is no constitutional right to run for office, having to adhere to the mandate amid the pandemic restricts candidates’ access to the state ballot, which in turn places a burden “on First Amendment political rights such as the right of association and free speech of voters.”

A spokesperson for Virginia’s Department of Elections said Wednesday it does not comment on litigation.

Goldman and Carter cite a previous, successful effort from Omari Faulkner, a Republican candidate who sought the nomination in Virginia’s U.S. Senate race and filed a similar lawsuit in March. Despite a Richmond Circuit judge ruling in his favor to drop the signature threshold from 10,000 to 3,500, Faulkner barely eclipsed that mark and ultimately did not make it on the ballot.

“Upon information and belief, there has been no claim that the decision in Faulkner had any negative impact on the Republican senatorial primary this past June nor has the state suggested the reduction in the signature requirement did, in fact, harm any of its legitimate ballot access interests,” Goldman and Carter’s lawsuit asserts. “Therefore, Virginia cannot meet its constitutional burden for maintaining the current 10,000 signature requirement during this continuing, indeed, growing COVID-19 pandemic.”

Goldman, the former Democratic Party chairman, is among eight Democrats in the 2021 Lt. Gov. race. Carter, the only self-described socialist in the General Assembly, told 8News that despite filing paperwork with the state to establish a fundraising committee in early December, a formal gubernatorial run will depend on what the Democratic candidates decide to campaign on.

In a call with 8News the day he submitted the paperwork, Carter said the platforms he’s heard from the contenders in the race has made an official run more likely than not.

“UVA’s most recent adaptive model predictions for COVID-19 spread during the petition collection window are frightening,” Carter said in a statement Tuesday. “We’re talking about weekly peaks that could be ten times higher than those we saw this summer.”

The lawsuit from Goldman and Carter also aims to suspend the rule that each candidate must have at least 400 signatures from each of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts, claiming that it is unconstitutional as applied during the pandemic.

“Any additional COVID-19 infections due to petition circulation activity would further stress public health infrastructure while unnecessarily placing healthcare workers at harm,” the lawsuit argues. “Since each voter counts equally in the June Democratic primary, there is no legitimate state interest in not suspending the requirement of a minimum number of signatures from each congressional district until the pandemic is under control.”

Goldman and Carter also asked the court to order the department of elections to implement an alternative to submit petition signatures digitally through electronic means, such as the VDOE’s online Citizen Portal, as soon as possible.

Goldman did not answer calls seeking comment, but released a statement Tuesday: “For Delegate Carter and myself, this isn’t about politics, but about people, protecting people and ensuring that people can safely and fairly exercise their right to have the candidate of their choice on the primary ballot.”

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