the 2019 Republican "firehouse primary" in western Prince William attracted 50% more voters than predicted
A major role of political parties is to nominate candidates that will advocate for the key principles of the party. In Virginia, political parties nominate candidates for up to five constitutional officers at local levels of government: Clerk of the Circuit Court, Treasurer, Commissioner of Revenue, Commonwealth's Attorney, and Sheriff. Parties also choose candidates for Town Council in 191 towns, City Council in 38 cities, and Board of Supervisors in 95 counties.
At the state level, parties choose candidates for 100 House of Delegates seats, 40 State Senate seats, plus Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General.
At the Federal level, candidates are nominated by political parties or through independent collection of signatures for 11 US House of Representatives seats and two US Senate seats. The process for choosing a president is different, however.
Candidates for Virginia's 13 "electors" who vote in the Electoral College for President and Vice-President are chosen at state conventions held by each party. Participants in the conventions are chosen by district committees. The number of votes for each district are based on formulas defined by each party. On the first ballot of the state convention, participants are honor-bound to vote for the candidate who won the most votes in their district's primary, caucus, or convention.
The names of the Presidential candidates appear on Virginia ballots, but technically Virginia voters choose electors pledged to their preferred candidate rather than vote directly for the presidential candidate. The electors for the wining candidate meet, on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, to cast their votes. Electors have the option to violate their pledge and vote for someone other than the person who won the most votes for president and vice-president.
Independent candidates not associated with any political party can qualify to get on a ballot by submitting petitions with signatures of registered voters to the local registrar. Each office requires a specific number of signatures of registered voters within the district(s) to be represented by that office.
Independents must find supporters or hire contractors to collect enough signatures to qualify. Occasionally they get assistance from major party candidates trying to split the vote.
In 2018, U.S. Representative Scott Taylor was defeated after staffers were caught forging signatures to get a third-party candidate nominated as an Independent. That candidate had failed to win nomination from the Democratic Party, but getting her on the ballot was expected to divert enough votes from the official nominee to help elect Republican Rep. Taylor. After testimony that even dead people had supposedly signed the petition, the judge forced the "independent" candidate off the ballot. In the election, the Democratic candidate won the race to replace Rep. Scott Taylor in the US House of Representatives.
Staffers working for the Republican incumbent were indicted for illegally adding names to the "independent" candidate's nominating petition. Three pled guilty, after charges of felony election fraud with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, were reduced to misdemeanors. In the plea deals, they were sentenced to a one-year suspended jail sentence and fined $1,000. Rep. Taylor's political consultant was charged three years later with 10 counts of false statements and election fraud. He pled guilty in 2022 after charges were reduced to misdemeanors, and received a three-year suspended sentence.
Rep. Scott Taylor stated he was aware of the petition effort, but not of the forgery or the failure to witness signatures. When he ran again in 2020, unsuccessfully hoping to win back his seat, there were no issues with petition signatures.1
the Democratic Party successfully pressed to remove a third-party candidate from the ballot in 2018, since nominating petitions were fraudulent
Source: Blue Virginia blog, Letter to Virginia Board of Elections: "If you do not take action by noon this Friday, August 10, 2018, we intend to seek judicial intervention" (August 9, 2018)
Outright fraud occurs in various steps for candidates running for all types of offices. Most attention regarding voter fraud is focused on actual elections, especially after President Donald Trump claimed without evidence that voter fraud cost him the 2020 election, but it also occurs in the nominating process.
In 2019, a member of the Patrick County School Board who had served for almost 12 years submitted petitions to be on the ballot again. Though he had more than the required number of signatures, some were fraudulent. The candidate certified under oath that he had witnessed all the voters signing his petition, but that was not true. After being indicted, he resigned from the School Board, ran for re-election, and was defeated. He plead guilty, but a state judge chose to take the charges "under advisement" for a year. That allowed the defendant to avoid punishment if he had no further brushes with the law for a year.
In 2020, the Virginia Department of Elections certified Kanye West as the presidential candidate of the Birthday Party. However, a Circuit Court judge blocked his name from being printed on the ballot, after determining that most of the petitions of the 13 electors for the Birthday Party were fraudulent.2
Political parties are responsible for submitting required paperwork to the Virginia State Board of Elections that identifies their party's official nominee. Both party officials and candidates make mistakes. The State Board of Elections and Circuit Court judges determine if those mistakes are minor enough to allow a person to appear on the ballot anyway, or serious enough to block the name of a candidate from being printed.
In 2019, the Democratic Party sent the official material to the wrong email address, and state officials were not notified by the deadline of the Democratic nominee for the 76th District in the House of Delegates. Republican officials failed to deliver the required paperwork for their nominee for the 1st District. In both cases, the State Board of Elections determined that the party intent was clear and placed the nominee's name on the ballot.
State officials also relied upon the notification by state Republican Party officials of their nominee for the 97th District of the House of Delegates that year. The local party officials had run both a nominating convention and a primary in 2019 for that district, an unusual duplication that reflected factional fighting between two candidates. The State Central Committee determined the winner and provided the official notification.
That state board refused to certify the Republican candidate for the 30th District of the House of Delegates. The incumbent, Delegate Nick Freitas, failed to submit two sets of required paperwork, and submitted just one. His name was left off the ballot. He then mounted the first successful write-in campaign for a General Assembly seat since 1989, educating 58% of the voters to look pass his Democratic opponent's name and add something close to "Nick Freitas" on the line below it reserved for write-in votes.
When Del. Freitas sought the Republican nomination in 2020 for the Seventh Congressional District, he missed the registration deadline again. The State Board of Elections allowed him to be listed on the Republican primary ballot for that seat in 2020, in part because the COVID-19 pandemic had disrupted the election schedule. After a 2-1 vote to list his name, a member of the state board proposed creating a new sanction for missed deadlines, one with less severity than denying a candidate a place on the ballot.3
Any political party that has earned 10% of the vote for a statewide office can avoid the signature collection process and use alternative selection processes. To date, only Republican and Democratic parties have been able to cross the 10% threshold. Candidates that the parties nominate must still meet state requirements to qualify for the office, such as living within Virginia for at least one year immediately preceding the election. The Virginia Department of Elections publishes a "candidate bulletin" defining specific requirements for different offices.
There are different ways for a political party to choose their candidates, without the headache of collecting signatures. In the past, political bosses chose the candidates and voters had little role in the nomination process. Conventions with a stereotypical "smoke filled back room" are still an option, though likely to be at non-smoking venues now. In 2018, US Representative Thomas Garrett abandoned his campaign for re-election after the filing deadline, at a time when he was the official Republican nominee.
The 37 members of the 5th Congressional District Republican Committee chose who would replace Rep. Garrett as the Republican nominee for the 5th District seat in the US House of Representatives. Six last-minute candidates, including one who had just been defeated for the Republican nomination in the adjacent Sixth District where she lived, sought support from members on the committee.
The campaign process focused on just the 37 Republican voters in the district who served on the 5th Congressional District Republican Committee. They met in the auditorium of Nelson County High School, with observers in the seats, and on June 2 chose Denver Riggleman to be the new candidate. He went on to win election in the general election on November 6, 2018.
Rep. Riggleman turned out to be too libertarian for many of the Republican officials in his district, especially after he officiated at a same-sex wedding, though he received President Trump's endorsement. The District Committee chose to hold a convention in 2020 rather than the firehouse primary Rep. Riggleman desired, knowing that his independent supporters were less likely to participate and ideological purity would be maximized.
In the convention process, local Republican committees in 21 counties and two cities elected 3,500 delegates to attend a one-day meeting to select the nominee. A convention dominated by conservative Republican officials would give an advantage to Riggleman's opponent, the former athletics director at Liberty University who described himself as a "bright red biblical and constitutional conservative". The chair of the 5th District Republican Committee also arranged for the convention to be held at the church of Rep. Riggleman's opponent.
The spread of the COVID-19 disease in the 2020 pandemic created the possibility that a crowded convention room would be illegal, since it would violate a state ban on mass meetings established to maintain social distancing. The alternative for nominating a candidate was to repeat the 2018 process in which only the 37 members of the 5th Congressional District Republican Committee chose the candidate.
In that hypothetical scenario, it was possible that no candidate could meet the requirement to get two-thirds of the vote (instead of a simple majority). Unless the state committee altered the rules, there was theoretical possibility that no Republican would be nominated in 2020 for the 5th District race. The 5th Congressional District Republican Committee chose to let party activists decide via an "unassembled mass convention."
up to 6,520 delegates could be chosen by local County/City Republican Committees to vote at the 2020 convention in the 5th District
Source: 5th Congressional District Republican Committee, Fifth Congressional District Republican Party Official 2020 Convention Call
The unique convention was held in the parking lot at the Tree of Life Ministries in Campbell County. Delegates were instructed to drive there, fill out ballots inside their cars, hand them to a teller, and drive away without ever leaving their car or mingling with other delegates. Tree of Life Ministries was the personal church of the more-conservative candidate, and that location made it more convenient for his supporters to participate. In this party-run primary, 200 volunteers directed drivers to go through different lines to vote based on where they lived. One car with three voters had to drive through twice, because one person in that carpool lived in a different county.
In 2016, 856 Republicans had chosen Thomas Garrett as their candidate in a 5th District convention, and he received 207,758 votes in the 2016 general election. In 2018, 37 members of the 5th Congressional District Republican Committee had made the decision, and 165,339 people voted for Denver Riggleman in the November 2018 election. In 2020, up to 6,520 people could file to serve as a delegate and 3,500 were chosen. In the drive-through convention, 2,537 delegates appeared and voted in the largest Republican convention turnout on record for the 5th District
Though voting finished at 7:00pm, results were not announced until 1:00am. The incumbent Congressman was defeated decisively in the 2020 convention by his challenger, 58%-42%. President Trump and Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed Rep. Denver Riggleman, but he was not conservative enough for the delegates who participated in the 2020 convention.
Rep. Riggleman complained of ballot stuffing and voting irregularities in the convention. He did not endorse Bob Good, the man who defeated him, but Good ended up winning the 5th District seat in the November 2020 general election. When the decision to hold a nominating convention rather than a primary was made initially, Rep. Riggleman had claimed the preferred process reflected corruption and voter intimidation by:4
the normal convention process was altered in 2020 for the 5th District Republicans, eliminating the traditional interactions between attendees
Source: 5th Congressional District Republican Committee, Official 2020 Convention Call
The coronovirus pandemic also caused the Roanoke City Democratic Committee to drop plans for a firehouse primary on May 2, 2020. Instead, the committee decided that its 70 members would choose the three nominees for the city council election in November. The committee decided that voting in person was no longer a safe process, an unusual assessment that was enhanced when Gov. Northam issued a shelter-in-place Executive Order. Organizing a mail-in ballot process in the short amount of time available was too expensive and too complex. Instead, the five candidates for three seats were given details on how to contact the committee members, so they could influence the nomination decisions that would be made by just 70 people.
In Richmond, a judge lowered the requirements to get on the ballot for the 2020 mayoral election because "social distancing" reduced the ability to get signatures on a nominating petition. Normally 500 signatures were required, with at least 50 coming from registered voters in each of the city's nine wards. The judge extended the deadline for submitting petitions, lowered the total number of signatures to 250, and required that only 10 signatures be collected in each election district.5
the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 disrupted the nomination process of the 5th Congressional District Republican Committee, forcing the cancellation of mass meetings
Source: 5th Congressional District Republican Committee, Biennial District Convention (as displayed on March 25, 2020)
A state-run primary is an election funded by the county or city in which the election is held. Candidates qualify for their party's ballot by collecting signatures, just like independent candidates do to get on the ballot in general elections.
For a presidential candidate to appear on the ballot in a state run primary, they must file petitions with 5,000 signatures from qualified voters, with at least 200 signatures from each of the state's 11 congressional districts. For a statewide office (US Senator, Governor, Lieutenant Governor, or Attorney General), 10,000 signatures are required, including the signatures of at least 400 qualified voters from each congressional district.
For a US Representative race, candidates must submit 1,000 valid signatures. The Democratic Party recommends submitting 1,500 total, with the expectation that a significant percentage of collected signatures will be invalid. In 2022, a candidate seeking the Democratic nomination for the 5th Congressional District submitted 1,093 signatures. Only 937 were certified, however, and the candidate was not listed on the ballot because the total was below the 1,000 signature requirement.
In 2020, a judge reduced the threshold for a US Senate candidate to get listed on the ballot for the Republican primary. Two candidates had collected enough signatures to qualify before the COVID-19 pandemic triggered requirements for social distancing. A third candidate complained that it was impossible to collect the additional signatures that he required, when people were directed to stay six feet away from each other.
One of the candidates who had already qualified objected to lowering the threshold for a rival who had not demonstrated having a robust organization capable of winning a statewide campaign in November against the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Mark Warner. However, a state judge decided that in the unusual circumstances, the third candidate should be added to the ballot even though he had collected only 3,769 of the required 10,000 signatures.
Independent candidates submit the petitions to the local General Registrar, or for statewide offices to the Virginia Department of Elections for review and certification. Candidates for a party's nomination, including "independent parties" other than Democratic and Republican parties, give their petitions to the chair of their political party.
The parties must review the signatures to determine that a sufficient number of qualified voters have signed, then certify the qualified candidates to the Virginia Department of Elections so those names will appear on the ballot. The order in which names appear on ballots is based on the time of filing for the office.6
people hired to circulate petitions to get a candidate on the ballot do not have to be registered voters in the candidate's election district
Source: Virginia Department of Elections, Petition of Qualified Voters Form
For a state-run primary, local Electoral Boards arrange for use of all of the polling places in the precincts and hire enough staff, based on projected turnout, to handle the expected voters. Since voter turnout in nominating primaries is generally less than 10%, poll workers are rarely busy.
In a state-run primary, all registered voters can go to their normal polling place and cast a ballot to choose candidates. Virginia does not register voters by political party; election officials at a polling place do not have a list of registered Republicans or registered Democrats. As a result, a state-run "closed" primary limiting voters to just official Republicans or official Democrats is not possible in the state.
Virginia holds "open" primaries, and voters can request a Republican ballot or a Democratic ballot on election day. A person who considers themself to be a Republican could ask for a Democratic ballot, and vote for a candidate they consider to be the weaker rival of the Republican candidate in the general election. Similarly, a person who considers themself to be a Democrat could request a Republican ballot in a state-run primary, and get involved in choosing who will be nominated by the rival political party.
Only one ballot may be chosen on election day of a state-run primary; voters can help to choose just one party's candidates. There is no legal option for voting twice on primary day, getting a separate ballot the second time. However, if a voter lives in a district with a state-run primary on one day and a party-run primary of another day, the voter can participate in both. (That is also possible if each party sponsors a primary and they choose different days for those two events.)
In state-run primaries, voters can request a Republican ballot one year and a Democratic ballot the next year. Whichever ballot the voter requests will be provided. At the polling place in a state-run primary, officials check only to ensure a voter is registered in that district, before supplying whatever ballot is requested.
Open primaries allow partisan activists to cross over and engage in manipulating who is nominated in the opposing party. Republicans fear that Democrats might choose to vote in their primary and select the least-electable candidate or one who would support Democratic initiatives, a "Republican in Name Only" or RINO. Democrats have the same concern regarding Republicans shaping who the Democrats would nominate. Both parties wish to attract independents in the general elections, but the nominating process is designed to select candidates who are the most-committed to different Republican and Democratic priorities.
Some partisans participate in another party's primary because the district leans heavily Republican or Democratic. If the nominee of the dominant party is going to win the general election in November, then the only real choice will be for selecting the candidate in the primary. For much of the 20th Century, when Virginia was a part of the Solid South and the Byrd Organization controlled the state government, the real political contests were the Democratic primaries. Nomination by the Democratic Party in a primary contest was "tantamount to election" in November.
in 2019, the Republican Clerk of the Fairfax Circuit Court encouraged Republicans and Independents to vote in the Democratic primary
Source: John T. Frey, Facebook post (June 9, 2019)
Today, there are districts that are reliably Republican as well as reliably Democratic. Political differences are resolved in the nominating process, because the dominant party in that district is almost guaranteed to win in the general election. Incumbents who compromise in the General Assembly to get legislation passed become vulnerable to more ideologically "pure" opponents. Few voters bother to participate in the elections which choose candidates, and voters with a strong liberal or conservative bias typically have more influence in the nomination decisions.
Republican Del. Bob Thomas voted to support expansion of Medicaid in Virginia, as provided under the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"). That spurred a more-conservative opponent, Paul Milde, to challenge him in the primary for the 28th District seat. Del. Thomas lost by 143 votes to the challenger. Thomas had received 11,842 votes in a very close race against a Democratic candidate in 2017, but two years later a total of only 5,805 people voted in the 2019 Republican primary.
The intra-party rivalry may have been a key factor in the general election. The Democratic candidate who lost the close race in 2017 defeated Republican nominee Paul Milde in the 2019 contest by 736 votes, flipping the seat and helping his party take control of the House of Delegates.
One assessment of the race blamed Republican "big money players from outside the district" for the loss. The thesis was that the Republican establishment provided enough funding in the primary for Del. Bob Thomas to portray his opponent negatively. After the Thomas lost the primary to Milde, the negative image of the Republican nominee and the failure of "big money players" to finance his general election campaign affected results. About 3% of the voters who supported other Republicans in the general election "crossed over." They voted for the Democratic candidate running to replace Del. Thomas in the 28th District, providing the margin of victory.
Paul Milde's assessment was that the disparity in campaign financing doomed his campaign. He spent $527,000, just 40% of what the victorious Democrat spent. In Milde's opinion, because Republicans failed to contribute enough to the party's nominee in the general election, the Democratic candidate won the race.7
in the 28th District for House of Delegates, incumbent Bob Thomas was defeated in the 2019 primary by a more-conservative Republican - who then lost the general election
Source: Virginia Department of Elections, 2019 June Republican Primary and 2019 November General Unofficial Results
the Democratic candidate raised far more funds in 2019 for the general election than the Republican candidate
Source: Virginia Public Access Project, House: General Elections
Today, some districts vote so reliably Republican or Democratic today that one party will not even bother to nominate a candidate.
For example, in 2015 the Republicans did not nominate a candidate for the 79th District for House of Delegates representing parts of Norfolk and Portsmouth. The Democratic candidate, who was destined to be elected, was chosen in the primary. Over 15% of the voters in that primary voted in Republican primaries before or after the 2015 election, offering a clue that 79th District Republicans were trying to choose their member of the House of Delegates by engaging in the Democratic primary.
in 2019, the Virginia Public Access Project identified recent races with the highest percentage of crossover voters
Source: Virginia Public Access Project, Cross-Party Voting
Also in 2015, 10% of votes in the Republican primary for the 29th District of the House of Delegates came from apparent Democrats. It was obvious that the Republican nominee would win the election in that conservative area, in the Shenandoah Valley near Winchester. In the 29th District primary in 2015, the very-conservative Republican incumbent lost to a challenger by 34 votes in a 52%-48% decision. The 200 presumed Democrats who voted in that Republican primary, the "cross over" votes, may have determined the winner.8
Democratic candidates received at least 55% of the votes between 2013-18 in the 79th District, so Republicans sought to influence the primary decision
Source: Virginia Public Access Project, House of Delegates District 79
The alternative to a state-run primary is a nomination process run by a political party. If a political party chooses to sponsor a primary, then that political party has to pay the costs of the primary election. Costs are minimized by recruiting volunteers to staff the polls and by limiting the number of polling places.
The advantage offsetting the costs is that in a party-run primary, only party members may be allowed to participate. A political party can use their own criteria to limit participation to just "loyal" Republicans or "true" Democrats. Party volunteers who staff the polls can use partisan criteria to determine who is eligible to vote. That screening process is not possible in the state-funded primary process; in those elections, a registered voter living within the district can participate in either the Republican or Democratic primary. If each party chooses to nominate candidates via a state-run primary but the primaries are scheduled on different days, it is possible for a voter to participate in both primary elections.
Anyone unwilling to sign a pledge can be turned away at the polling place and not allowed to vote in a party-run nomination process. In a party-run primary, those trying to cast a ballot can be blocked from voting if they have a track record of supporting candidates in the other party. Making campaign contributions to candidates in the other party, endorsing candidates in the other party, or voting in a previous state-run primary for the other party can be justification for declaring someone unqualified to vote.
Though voters in Virginia do not register by party, the Department of Elections will provide to qualified candidates and political parties a list of the elections in which a voter participated. Participation in a general election will not identify if that individual is a Republican or Democrat. However, a person with a pattern of voting in state-run primaries for Democratic Party candidates might be blocked from voting in a primary run by the Republican Party (and vice-versa). There are no state records of who participated in a party-run primary.
Potential voters can be required to sign a pledge that they will support the candidates of that one political party in the upcoming general election, though a party can choose not to require a pledge in a particular primary in order to encourage independents to participate. Voters can pledge to support candidates of a political party in the general election in order to participate in a primary, then violate that pledge with impunity. In the general election, the secret ballot ensures that no one will know which candidate a voter chose.
in 2018, an activist suggested focusing on Democratic primaries to support less-liberal candidates in Fairfax County because Republicans could not win general elections
Source: The Bull Elephant blog, Dear Fairfax Republicans, Go Vote in the Democratic Primaries! (December 8, 2018)
The type of primary affects turnout. State conventions in presidential election years can be large, stimulating voter enthusiasm but also requiring the party to pay for renting a large facility.
In 2016, the Republican Party of Virginia authorized election of 56,715 delegates and 56,715 alternates. The largest indoor facility in the state, the John Paul Jones Arena at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, could accommodate less than 16,000 people. As expected, many potential attendees were not chosen when local jurisdictions selected their delegates; not everyone wants to spend two days literally in the political arena.
For the 2020 Quadrennial Convention, the Republican Party of Virginia booked the Vines Center at Liberty University. The call for the convention authorized party committees in local jurisdictions to select five people for each vote authorized from that jurisdiction plus five alternates, incentivizing a large turnout at the convention. Each person who attended had to pay a $35 fee, offsetting costs of the event.
Votes per jurisdiction in that convention were based on the 2016 election for president. For each 250 votes cast in a jurisdiction for Donald Trump, the jurisdiction was allotted one vote. Though Fairfax County was "blue" in 2016 and Trump received only 29% of the votes there, the high population and high turnout led to Fairfax County being allocated 1,100 votes. That was the greatest number of votes for a single jurisdiction at the 2020 Republican state convention. Small Highland County, which voted 69% for the Republican candidate, received the fewest votes (7).
The Republican Party decided in 2019 to use a convention rather than a primary to choose how Virginia's delegates should vote at the 2020 Republican National Convention planned for Charlotte, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced changes. The state convention also was used to choose two of the 13 people Virginia would send to the Electoral College if the Republican candidate won the 2020 presidential contest in Virginia. The other 11 electors were chosen by the 11 Congressional District committees, in regional conventions or mass meetings.9
the Republican Party of Virginia chose to hold its 2020 Quadrennial Convention at the Vines Center on the campus of Liberty University, before the COVID-19 pandemic changed plans
Source: Wikipedia, Vines Center
Party-run primaries can be organized as a firehouse primary (also known as a mass canvass, unassembled caucus or party canvass), mass meeting (assembled caucus), or convention. The process affects which voters will participate. Conventional wisdom is that results of a firehouse primary represent the broadest range of opinions within the party, while conventions are tilted towards nominating the most-ideological candidate.
A firehouse primary resembles the state-run primary. Typically, one spot within the election district is chosen as the polling place, such as the meeting room at the local volunteer fire department. Registered voters within that district can come at any time during the hours designated for voting, pass through the partisan screening process, cast their ballot, and go away. At the end of the day, votes are counted and the candidate who receives the largest number of votes will be the party nominee.
The process for a mass meeting or "assembled caucus" requires everyone to stay in the one location and vote, sometimes multiple times, until one candidate has received over 50% of the votes.
A firehouse primary requires only that a voter appear at the polling place, demonstrate they are qualified according to the party's rules, and then cast a ballot. Voters may interact with each other while standing in line, but the process is less confrontational and more welcoming for independents who may support a less-polarizing candidate. A mass canvass or "assembled caucus" thus requires more of a time commitment on the part of the voter, and will typically attract fewer independents.
A convention is designed to give extra voting power to areas of the election district which are more supportive of that party's candidates. Local party officials determine before the meeting how many delegates will represent different precincts, and can give extra weight to votes of delegates from some areas because in previous elections those areas produced more votes for the party's candidates.
A convention can require a substantial part of a day, including listening to speeches by candidates. Party loyalists and partisan activists are more likely to participate in such a process. That tilts the nomination process away from a moderate towards a Republican or Democrat further out towards the extreme edge on the ideological spectrum. Independents in general elections are inclined to support moderates, so "electability" can be enhanced or minimized by the nominating process.
The State Central Committee of each party determines if it will nominate candidates via a primary or convention for statewide races - Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and US Senator. Local Legislative District Committees determine the nomination process for House of Representatives, House of Delegates, and State Senate seats.
County and city committees in each party determine the nomination process for local officials - city council, county supervisor, sheriff, Commissioner of Revenue, Clerk of the Circuit Court, Treasurer, and Commonwealth's Attorney. School Board members run as independents in theoretically non-partisan races, but local Republican and Democratic committees endorse candidates and help them get on the ballot by collecting signatures.10
Until 2017, incumbents could choose the manner in which political parties would nominate their candidates for the next election. That power minimized the risk that a disgruntled faction within a party could derail an incumbent's renomination. The Sixth Congressional District Republican Committee sued, claiming that provision in state law violated the First Amendment in the US Constitution. Political parties are private groups with a "right of association," which the state had no justification in limiting. A federal judge and then an appeals court concurred, allowing the party organization rather than the incumbent to determine the nomination process.11
Bob McDonnell, a Republican candidate elected as governor in Virginia in 2009, was nominated in a convention.
A primary had been planned in 2013 until conservative and tea-party activists gained control of the Republican State Central Committee. They canceled plans to hold a statewide primary and chose to hold a convention to nominate statewide candidates in 2013. The calculation was that dedicated conservative activists would have more influence in a convention, rather than in a primary.
The change in the nomination process helped conservative Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli become the Republican candidate for governor. More-moderate Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling withdrew from the race when the nominating process was switched to a convention. Cuccinelli's polarizing candidacy suppressed support of "establishment" Republicans and moderates, and in a close race Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe won. He received 46.3% of the vote. Cuccinelli won 45.2%, and Libertarian Robert Sarvis won 6.5%.
In 2015 the Central Committee crafted a "gentleman's agreement" between the conservative and establishment wings of the party. It held a primary for the 2016 presidential election, and planned to hold a convention in 2017 to select statewide candidates. However, after the primary in 2016 the party officials switched in a 41-40 vote to hold another primary in 2017. That led to the nomination of more-moderate Ed Gillespie over a Donald Trump advocate, Corey Stewart, in a very close race. Gillespie lost to Ralph Northam that fall, in a wave election during which Democrats captured 15 seats in the House of Delegates.
One commentator has noted that the previous convention nominating process had limited the success of the Republican candidates. Nomination of moderates might have resulted in a candidate with greater potential to get support from independent voters and thus win a close general election, but in the convention process a candidate's ideological purity was often more important than his or her electability:12
In 2019 the Virginia Public Access Project calculated that the political party nomination process was twice as likely to result in the defeat of an incumbent than the general election process. Competition within a political party created a greater risk to re-election that competition with the other party.13
incumbents are more likely to be defeated in a primary than in a general election
Source: Virginia Public Access Project, Primaries: More Perilous For Incumbents
The advantages of manipulating the nomination process were revealed in two 2019 elections.
In Prince William County, the incumbent Chair of the Board of County Supervisors chose not to run for re-election. The supervisor of the Coles District, Marty Nohe, announced his plans to run for the chairman's seat after representing his magisterial district for the last 15 years.
Republican Party activists in the county considered him to be an unreliable conservative. To steer the election towards a candidate with a different agenda on social issues and who would be less-accommodating for new development, local party officials decided to use a firehouse primary to nominate candidates for 2019. That required paying for the costs to staff polling booths and recruiting volunteers. The alternative was to nominate their 2019 candidates through a state-run primary where costs would be covered by government funds, a choice the Democrats made.
The party-run firehouse primary allowed the Republicans to determine who would be allowed to participate. Those seeking to vote could be screened for their party loyalty, and people with a track record of contributing to Democratic candidates or voting in Democratic primaries could be turned away. In addition, those trying to vote could be required to sign a loyalty pledge committing to support Republican candidates in the general election, and anyone declining to sign the pledge could be blocked from voting.
Those screening techniques were legal in the privately-run nominating contest organized by the Republican Party, in contrast to the state-run primary process. Limiting the opportunity to vote to "reliable" Republicans was expected to deter independents and Democrats from participating in the Republican primary. That did tilt the playing field away from the supervisor of the Coles District, and a candidate running as a pro-Trump conservative (despite previously running as a Democrat and as an Independent for other offices) won the nomination by a 57%-43% majority.
Designing a nominating process which led to that choice, in a county that was increasingly leaning to the Democratic Party, reduced the chances of other Republicans on the ticket in the general election. A local newspaper editorialized:14
In the general election, the Trump-aligned candidate was defeated. The Republicans lost their 6-2 majority on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors; it became a 5-3 Democratic majority. Democrats also won two Republican seats on the School Board to take a 7-1 majority there.15
a firehouse primary nominating process in 2019 led to the selection of a pro-Trump Republican to run for chair of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors
Source: The Bull Elephant blog, Results in Prince William County Republican Firehouse Primary (May 4, 2019)
In the House of Delegates 97th District, Republicans nominated one candidate in a convention and another in a firehouse primary in 2019. Supporters of the two rivals recognized that the different processes would have different results.
Three conventions were scheduled originally, one each in the three counties covered in part by the 97th District. The incumbent realized after the convention in Hanover County that the challenger would win, so he arranged for a new person to be appointed to the 97th House Legislative District Committee. It then cancelled convention process and announced plans to hold a firehouse primary to choose the nominee.
Appeals to the 97th House Legislative District Committee failed to resolve the conflict. In the end, the Republican State Central Committee made the final decision in favor of the candidate chosen through the convention process. That allowed the challenger to become the nominee, and he won the seat even though some disgruntled supporters of the incumbent started a write-in campaign for the general election.16
The impact of choosing a convention vs. primary for nominating candidates was revealed again in late 2020. After Joe Biden defeated President Trump by 10 points in Virginia during the 2020 presidential race, the Republican State Central Committee chose to nominate its candidates for statewide races in 2021 in a convention.
Party leaders were trying to block a pro-Trump candidate, State Sen. Amanda Chase, from winning the nomination. In a reversal of normal assumptions, they thought that the politically-engaged delegates to a convention were less likely to be motivated by ideology and more interested in nominating a more-moderate candidate. No Republican had won a state-wide office since 2009, and District Committees were expected to choose delegates to a convention who prioritized victory rather than alignment with former president Trump. A convention would require repeated rounds of voting, if necessary, for the 2021 statewide candidates to win over 50% of the vote. In a crowded primary with multiple candidates, where a plurality of votes would determine the winner, the pro-Trump candidate was favored to win the nomination for governor.
The planned 2021 Republican convention was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor imposed limits on how many people could gather in one place, and assembling thousands of delegates at a political convention would exceed the authorized threshold. Efforts to modify the Party Plan to adapt to the circumstances were blocked by supporters of the pro-Trump candidate, who pressed for a switch to a primary. When the deadline for choosing a state-run primary passed, the advocates pressed for unassembled meetings across the state rather than a gathering in one location.
The Republican State Central Committee switched back and forth, adopting different proposals which then turned out to be impossible to implement with the COVID-19 restrictions. The battle over nomination procedures was a proxy war, reflecting the battle over whether a pro-Trump candidate should be the nominee. The final resolution was to hold an unassembled convention with delegates gathering in 37 places. A limited form of ranked choice voting was chosen, with delegates indicating just their top two choices.17
In its special session in 2021, the General Assembly required the process for nominating most candidates after 2024 to include absentee voting provisions. Parties who chose to use a state-run primary would benefit from the standard state procedures for absentee voting. Parties who chose an alternative would be required to find a way for the 90,000 Virginians serving in the US military, Virginia residents living overseas, and people with disabilities to vote by absentee ballot. The logistics and costs of bypassing the state-run primary process would be great.
The impact of the bill fell on just one political party. The Democratic Party, which controlled the General Assembly and the governor's office when the bill was passed, would be unaffected; it already was choosing to use the state-run primary process. However, the Republicans had chosen to use that technique to nominate candidates for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General only three times between 1953-2021, in 1989, 2005, and 2017.
The bill authorized use of conventions for special elections, and in cases where no candidate filed the required paperwork. The bill was supported by Republicans who wanted to reduce the power of the various committees who chose delegates to conventions, and to broaden the number of Republicans engaged in the nomination process.18
Also in 2021, the State Board of Elections tightened enforcement of the requirement to submit the proper paperwork, on time, to qualify for being listed on a primary ballot. It announced in advance that the board was ending its traditional leniency in granting extensions to candidates who filed late or incomplete reports.
When the deadline passed, paperwork had not been received by the board from eight candidates. The board proceeded to authorize candidates in five districts where a candidate had problems, but there were no opponents for that party's nomination. The board rejected requests for extensions by three Democrats who had planned to contest incumbents, but failed to get financial disclosure, certificate of candidate qualification, or other forms to the correct office by the deadline. In one case, a candidate for a House of Delegates seat had taken the paperwork to the Richmond registrar rather than the Virginia Department of Elections.
The rejection of extensions triggered claims that the State Board of Elections had changed its practice in order to protect Democratic incumbents from being challenged. One commentator was not sympathetic:19
Later in 2021, the State Board of Elections let three Republicans appear on the ballot even though their paperwork filings were incomplete. The board was flexible if local party officials had been responsible for the failure to file required paperwork, but rigid if candidates had been responsible for the failure, because:20
The State Board of Elections refused to accommodate an independent candidate who failed to submit a required financial disclosure form to the state office in Richmond. The candidate for a House of Delegates seat had provided the form to the registrar in his local jurisdiction, and relied upon her guidance that another copy of the paperwork did not need to be sent to state officials. That guidance was not correct for candidates seeking state office, and the State Board of Elections blocked the candidate from appearing on the 2021 ballot.21
The Republican Party sought to take advantage of the more-rigid enforcement when candidates failed to submit correct paperwork. It filed suit in 2021 to block Terry McAuliffe from appearing on the ballot as the Democratic candidate for Governor, because McAuliffe had failed to sign his declaration of candidacy form. The lawsuit also claimed that the state constitution barred McAuliffe from running for a second term, even though if elected he would not be serving consecutivve terms.
The Richmond Circuit Court judge rejected both claims. He ruled that a signature from the candidate was not required; the requirements elsewhere in the Code of Virginia for signatures on notarized forms did not apply to a declaration of candidacy form. McAuliffe had appeared before two witnesses who were qualified voters, and that was sufficient to comply with the law:22
Terry McAuliffe failed to sign his candidate declaration form in 2021
Source: Republican Party of Virginia. Virginia GOP Files Lawsuit Seeking McAuliffe Disqualification
One Democrat in 2021 qualified to run simultaneously for two seats. Del. Elizabeth Guzman sought nomination by the Democratic Party for Lieutenant Governor and announced she did not plan to run for re-election to her 31st District seat in the June 8, 2021 primary. That resulted in three other Democrats filing paperwork to run for the House of Delegates in her district, as the immigrant from Peru hoped to become the first Hispanic elected to statewide office.
Del. Guzman then changed her mind and also qualified for the ballot for re-election to the House of Delegates. Running for two offices hedged her bet. If she won both nominations, she could run for both seats in the General Election in November. In her best case scenario, she would win both races and choose to take office as Lieutenant Governor, forcing a special election for the 31st District seat.
She decided in April, after seeing fundraising reports, that she could not win the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor aganst six other candidates. Del. Guzman withdrew from the statewide race and focused on the House of Delegates contest. Her withdrawal came after ballots were sent to the printer, so her name still appeared in her district in two places. She won the Democratic Party nomination, and then won the general election in November for the 31st District House of Delegates seat.23
In a party-run primary, the parties set the rules. The Republican Party chose to use ranked choice voting in 2021, and Democrats in Arlington County followed that model in 2022.
To nominate candidates in a special election for the 4th District House of Representatives seat at the end of 2022, Republicans chose to use ranked choice voting in their firehouse primary. Democrats stayed with the traditional plurality winner approach. Initially three members of the General Assembly announced they were candidates along with two others, so the plurality process made it likely that the winner would not receive 50% of the vote in the firehouse primary. When one of the three incumbents withdrew, the significance of no using the ranked choice process was diminished.24
The Democratic nomination for a special election in 2022 was affected by a new requirement that candidates pay a $5,000 filing fee, a steep increase from the normal $360 fee. In the race for the 7th District seat in the State Senate, only one of the two Democratic candidates paid the fee. The planned caucus of the Virginia Beach Democratic Committee was cancelled, with a declaraion that only one candidate had qualified. The other filed a lawsuit claiming the fee was unconstitutional, hoping the state courts would interfere in the party-run nomination process.25
Del. Elizabeth Guzman appeared on the ballot for two seats in the June 8, 2021 Democratic Primary
Source: Prince William County Office of Elections, Sample Ballots (2021)
potential delegates to District and State conventions have to commit in advance to support whichever candidates are nominated by their party, unlike voters in state-run primaries
Source: Democratic Party 2020 Call To Caucus To Elect State Delegates, 5th Congressional District Republican Committee, Pre-file Form Unit Template