By Bill Bartel, The Virginian-Pilot
After the court-ordered removal of Shaun Brown's name from the Nov. 6 congressional ballot for fraudulent signatures and phony addresses, can the petitions of other 2018 federal candidates be rechecked accuracy?
Depends on who you're asking about.
For example, in the 2nd Congressional District election, it's too late to check Rep. Scott Taylor's original petitions. Republican officials have already shredded them.
The petitions of his Democratic rival, Elaine Luria, are still in the possession of a party leader who likely will keep them for a couple of years. But Luria's petitions are private Democratic Party documents and not subject to state open records law. They can only be seen if party leaders agree to share them.
Meanwhile, petitions filed by independents like Brown and third-party candidates like Matt Waters, a Libertarian running for U.S. Senate, are publicly available documents that eventually will be permanently stored in the Library of Virginia.
The widely different approaches serve as a reminder that, while elections are a government process with strict regulations for getting a name on a ballot, the two major parties enjoy considerably more freedom and privacy in choosing their nominees.
Democratic and GOP leaders also have leeway in gauging whether a candidate has enough valid signatures. Some say they check every name on every petition against voter rolls. Others take a sampling and, if they find no pattern of errors, they certify the candidate has enough signatures.
Dennis Free, who reviewed and approved Taylor's petitions in his role as GOP chairman for the 2nd Congressional District, said he wouldn't stand for any chicanery in signature collecting.
"I take my duties very seriously," said Free, a retired police officer. "If anybody forged anybody’s signature on any of them documents – and I don’t care what side of the aisle they’re from – I hope they get caught, and I hope they get punished to the fullest extent of the law."
The Brown petition scandal involved members of Taylor's re-election campaign who had collected petitions for Brown to help her gain a spot on the ballot – a tactic that Luria supporters say was to draw votes away from the Democrat. However, Democrats challenged Brown's petitions in a lawsuit focusing on those collected by Taylor workers.
Taylor's staff's role came to light in a WHRV report. A subsequent investigation by The Virginian-Pilot found the petitions included the names of four dead people and 59 others who said their signatures had apparently been forged.
Richmond Circuit Judge Gregory Rupe ruled last week the petitions contained multiple forged signatures and "out and out fraud," and he ordered Brown removed from the ballot. She filed an appeal to the state Supreme Court this week.
Virginia State Police are investigating the signatures and the certifications on Brown's petitions, and a special prosecutor has been appointed to review the case.
Taylor acknowledged that his staff helped Brown but denounced any illegal activity to help her. Democrats do not accuse him of participating in fraud.
Parties use their own rules
The removal of Brown, an act so rare that leaders of both major parties can't remember it happening before, draws attention to a petition process that is an integral part of running for office but rarely gets public attention.
Everyone seeking elected office in Virginia has to get a certain number of voter signatures. It varies by the office: 10,000 for U.S. Senate, 1,000 for the U.S. House and far fewer for state legislative seats.
All must use state forms that have room for 21 voters per page. The person who gathered each page must sign it in front of a notary attesting they witnessed all the signatures.
After that, Democratic and Republican candidates have a different path than their independent or third-party rivals. Leaders of the two major parties review their candidates' petitions, following state guidelines but using their own systems for deciding whether there are enough valid signatures.
The review process isn't open to the public. But party leaders who oversee signature checking in statewide races and Hampton Roads congressional districts said candidates are sometimes allowed to be present and get involved if issues arise.
Sandra Brandt, head of 2nd District Democrats, said she and others checked all the signatures submitted by Luria and her primary opponent Karen Mallard, even though each submitted hundreds more than the 1,000 needed.
Free said he takes a sample of 10 percent of signatures if a candidate turns in at least 1,500 names. If he finds few errors, he'll approve the candidate's petitions.
"I thought it was a reasonable way to do it," he said, adding that he destroys the petition soon after the state elections department approves a candidate to be on the ballot.
Brandt said she'll keep petitions in a secure storage box for years. She only recently destroyed petitions for U.S. Rep. Glen Nye, who left office in 2011. Those petitions are kept confidential because they contain confidential voter names and addresses, she said. In some cases, voters also list the last four digits of their Social Security number – an optional item on the form.
State Democratic and Republican officials follow similar policies, with some storing petitions until after that year's election. But state law doesn't require them to do so.
John Findlay, director of the Virginia GOP, said any requests to look at stored petitions is a "case-by-case" decision.
Meanwhile, independent and third-party contenders have their petitions reviewed by the state Department of Elections, which examines each signature to make certain it's valid. And unlike the two parties, those petitions are open public records. They're kept by the department for two years and then sent to the library, said Dave Nichols, the department's elections service manager.
Nichols said state officials check every signature for an independent candidate and do not stop until they reached the required number to be on the ballot.
When asked if the department is conducting a review of its process now that a judge has ruled some signatures it approved were fraudulent, Nichols declined to comment.
"That's not something we can discuss right now," he said.