RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — A judge in Virginia’s capital has sided with a GOP Senate primary candidate who said the coronavirus outbreak stunted his ability to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot and the threshold should be lowered.
According to a Wednesday night ruling out of Richmond City Circuit Court, keeping former U.S. State Department official Omari Faulkner off the ballot in the face of the viral pandemic would be a violation of his rights.
“In normal circumstances, a signature requirement in order for an individual to be placed on the ballot is a light burden,” Judge Reilly Marchant wrote in the five-page opinion. “However, the circumstances as they exist in the Commonwealth of Virginia and across the United States are not normal right now.”
Marchant’s order lowers the ballot threshold from its usual 10,000 signatures down to 3,500, just below the number collected by Faulkner, according to his complaint filed Monday.
The order applies the new standard to all six candidates currently in the running for the Republican nomination for the Senate seat. The 3,500-signature threshold was requested by Faulkner and, according to the ruling, was not opposed by the Virginia Republican Party or the state’s Board of Elections, which were both defendants in the suit.
In a statement, Virginia Republican Party spokesperson John March said the organization was happy Faulkner was doing his part to flatten the curve as the virus known as Covid-19 spreads across the country.
“We look forward to the primary,” he added.
“This is a pretty exceptional situation and a pretty exceptional ruling,” said Stephen Farnsworth, political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “But the fact that the state and the Republican Party didn’t object demonstrates how extraordinary a moment this is.”
Farnsworth pointed to the Virginia GOP primary in 2012, when only Senators Mitt Romney and Rand Paul qualified for the presidential ballot because of signature collection issues. Four other Republican hopefuls — then-Texas Governor Rick Perry, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman — were all left off the ballot after failing to sway a federal judge over issues they had with ballot requirements.
“Historically, Virginia has been very strict about ballot rules,” Farnsworth said. “This is not a process where courts have been indulgent in the past.”
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, similarly called the judge’s ruling unique.
“Occasionally judges have been called to rule on whether a candidate met the filing requirements, and as a result, the candidate can be put on the ballot,” he said. “It’s rare but it does happen.”
Virginia’s only statewide election this year will be for the seat currently held by Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Warner. Warner is among the most popular senators in the country in their home state, according to a 2019 Morning Consult poll, and Republicans haven’t won a statewide seat in the once reliably red state for almost a decade.
Farnsworth opined the lack of concern about primary rules might be linked to the amount of confidence the state’s Republicans have in their ability to win.
Between the state’s distaste for President Donald Trump – former Vice President Joe Biden leads in Virginia by 7 percentage points, according to a recent Hampton University poll – Warner’s popularity, and a collection of relatively unknown GOP candidates vying for the seat who’ve raised just over $750,000 collectively compared to Warner’s $7.2 million war chest, there appears to be little hope in winning the race on the right.
“It’s not an encouraging environment for a Republican candidate,” Farnsworth said.
But March remained confident in his party’s ability to take back the coveted seat.
“Mark Warner better start packing,” he said.