Judge OKs GOP’s ‘loyalty oath’ for now

RICHMOND – A federal judge Thursday denied a request by African American community leaders for an injunction preventing the Virginia Board of Elections from mailing out absentee ballots for the Republican presidential primary that require a so-called “loyalty oath.”

U.S. District Judge Hannah Lauck said in her ruling that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to allow the injunction. However, she said a trial still must be held to rule on the constitutionality of the requirement.

The decision to deny the injunction, which the plaintiffs plan to appeal, concerns a new requirement that Virginians interested in voting in the Republican primary on March 1 sign a pledge of affiliation to the GOP. This is especially relevant to voters who support the nomination of Donald Trump for president but don’t self-identify as being members of the Republican Party.

Lauck called the requested injunction “an extraordinary remedy.” She said the “plaintiffs did not present evidence sufficient to show a likelihood of success on the merits on their constitutional claims.”

The lawsuit was filed after the Virginia Board of Elections last month approved a request by the state GOP that voters in the Republican presidential primary be required to sign a statement saying, “My signature below indicates that I am a Republican.”

In the suit, three Virginia ministers and leaders in the African American community argued that the requirement would violate minority voters’ civil rights by discouraging people who don’t typically vote as Republicans from casting ballots in the state’s normally open primary.

While some states register voters by party and allow only party members to vote in primaries, until now Virginia has not done so.

“To be Republican … the Republicans are considered racist. Anyone [in the African American community] who would sign this, great persecution would fall on them,” said Stephen Parson, one of the plaintiffs.

Parson also said such a requirement would create delays in voting. In his opinion, many people would be caught off guard about the requirement and hesitate or abstain from voting entirely.

The defense disagreed.

“Dr. Parson admitted that, other than himself and perhaps his fellow plaintiffs, he was unaware of any voter who did not intend to vote in the Republican Party presidential primary because of the RPV’s decision to require execution of the voter statement,” the defendants said in a brief filed Wednesday.

The brief argued that Parson’s testimony was hearsay and that it “simply repeated” allegations contained in the initial complaint.

“They offered no more than naked, conclusory statements that such detrimental effects might occur, and provided no evidence (or even well-pleaded factual allegations) that any of these hypothetical injuries plausibly would occur as a result of the Republican Party of Virginia’s voter statement,” the brief said.

Lauck agreed with the defense in issuing her decision.

However, in a ruling filed late Thursday, she said that the case “does raise concern as to the State Board of Elections duties to avoid voter confusion and to preserve the integrity of, and order in, the electoral process.”

Lauck said the in-person voting procedure remains poorly organized, citing the Board of Elections’ recent disclosure that the in-person voting procedure will include the use of a provisional ballot. While this is not inherently illegal, it would potentially create confusion for unaffiliated voters who did not want to declare their affiliation with the Republican Party.

The judge concluded that the parties involved should make preparations to schedule the forthcoming court case. It remains unclear how these proceedings will affect the Republican primary results in the state.

On the net: View the court ruling at  http://tinyurl.com/parsons-decision

Contact Matt Chaney at chaneymm@vcu.edu

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