RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A federal lawsuit claims the Democratic firehouse primary in Virginia’s 4th Congressional District “created an unconstitutional burden on potential voters” and seeks to stop the winner, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, from being certified as the party’s nominee.
The lawsuit, amended and filed in the Eastern District of Virginia on Wednesday, wants the court to order another nominating contest, alleging the process selected by the party’s 4th District committee suppressed voters. It points to the location of the polling sites, the fact it was held on a Tuesday instead of a Saturday and the rules of the primary.
The suit was filed by Paul Goldman, a former chair of the state’s Democratic Party, Tavorise Marks, one of the candidates who lost to McClellan, and five other 4th District voters who say they cast a ballot in the primary.
Sen. McClellan (D-Richmond) won the primary in a landslide, taking nearly 85% of the vote, and is seen as a heavy favorite to succeed the late Rep. A. Donald McEachin in Congress when she faces off against Republican Leon Benjamin in the Feb. 21 special election for the seat.
The plaintiffs argued in the lawsuit that requiring voting in person and establishing polling sites in seven of the 15 jurisdictions in the 4th District, which is anchored in Richmond but stretches down to the North Carolina border, denied potential voters the right to cast ballots in their home jurisdiction and use other voting methods.
“Such a traveling requirement is apparently unprecedented in any such election in Virginia,” the suit alleges, adding claims that Virginia’s Democratic Party knew a significant portion of potential voters may not have been able to make it to a polling location due to economic or other factors.
Marks, a civil rights advocate and entrepreneur who netted 0.78% of the vote in the primary, said his concerns over voter access across the district, particularly for those in rural areas, drove his decision to join Goldman’s suit.
“It was unfair. Richmond had two polling locations. Rural voters didn’t have anywhere to go. They made Richmond a priority,” he said in an interview Thursday.
Many Greensville and Brunswick county residents, Marks said, told him they wouldn’t be able to make it out to one of the eight polling sites to vote while he was collecting signatures to qualify for the ballot.
“On its face, allocating only eight voting locations to an electoral district the geographic size of the 4th CD is constitutionally flawed,” the lawsuit continues.
Under state law, the Democratic Party of Virginia has authority over the nominating process when there’s a vacancy.
Susan Swecker, state Democratic Party chair, and Alexsis Rodgers, chair of the party’s 4th Congressional District committee, laid the blame for the quick primary process on Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) for setting a special election on Dec. 12 that required parties to have their nominee by Dec. 23.
McClellan addressed the challenge to the primary during a Thursday morning press conference after she was declared the winner, pointing to the record turnout for the firehouse primary that Swecker cited when asked about claims of voter suppression on Wednesday.
“We worked our tails off to make sure every voter in this district knew where and how to vote. If they needed a ride, they would get there,” McClellan said Thursday. She added that the party had to adapt to the card it was dealt by Youngkin.
Marks called that defense a “very convenient excuse” for Democrats. He told 8News the lawsuit isn’t an effort to change the results of the primary, noting he only received 217 out of the 27,900 votes cast, but about ensuring voters get equitable elections.
“It’s about more than just me winning or losing. It’s about voters getting equal access to the ballot box,” Marks said. “They really think it’s [the lawsuit] about me. It’s not. It’s not sour grapes. Voters were shut out of the ballot box.”
A spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Virginia said Thursday the party does not comment on active litigation.
Marks said Thursday that while he doesn’t expect a new primary to be held, he hopes the lawsuit could bring legislative changes to how special elections are conducted in Virginia.
He added that he’s behind McClellan in her bid to fill McEachin’s seat, saying he will do what he can “to make sure she’s the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress.”
The lawsuit — which names Gov. Youngkin, members of the state Board of Elections, Virginia’s Elections Commissioner Susan Beals, the Democratic Party of Virginia, Swecker and Rodgers as defendants — claims that the Democratic primary led to an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power and violated the Voting Rights Act, the First Amendment and the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendments.
Goldman’s lawsuit seeks an injunction to block the Virginia Board of Elections from certifying the special election ballot with McClellan as the Democratic nominee. It also aims for the court to enter a judgment declaring the state code giving political parties power over the nominating process as “facially unconstitutional” or “unconstitutional as applied” for the primary.
The suit seeks a court order that makes way for “a constitutionally valid nomination process.” The plaintiffs also seek monetary damages, litigation costs and attorney fees.