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Votes

Choosing Candidates Tricky Business

Carol-Ann Kaye arrived at Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon ready to vote in the 33rd state senate Republican "firehouse" primary May 19.

The elfish gray-haired woman had her identification in one hand and campaign literature in another. A Fairfax County Public Schools employee, she stopped and chatted with At-large School Board member Steve Hunt and then walked through a door with a large sign that read "Vote Here."

Moments later, Kaye stepped through the door again, saying that she had been "barred" from voting.

Republican Party officials turned Kaye away from the polls when she refused to sign the party pledge, which would require her to declare her intent to support the Republican ticket in the fall.

"Since I was 21 years old, I have always voted for the candidate and never voted along party lines," said Kaye, who described her political leanings as "not pro-choice."

AT THE HEART of Kaye’s refusal is a debate over what constitutes the best political party nominating process in Virginia.

Since Virginia does not allow party registration, Republicans and Democrats require voters sign a party allegiance pledge before participating in any party-run candidate nominating process. Political parties can also choose to allow a state-run primary, where voters are not obligated to sign a pledge and people like Kaye can participate.

Some party officials favor the party-run nomination processes — including "firehouse" primaries, conventions, caucuses and mass meetings — demanding that voters sign the pledge.

"It keeps Democrats out and keeps folks here from participating in the Democratic primary," said Shaun Kenney, spokesperson for the Republican Party of Virginia.

Other political activists and candidates prefer the state-run primary, where they say more voters can participate.

"I feel better about [a state-run primary] than a firehouse primary. There are no unpleasant barriers to participation. This way we at least know we have the same opportunity as in any other election," said Charles Hall, a Democratic candidate challenging Fairfax County Supervisor Linda Smyth in the Providence District June 12.

BESIDES THE PLEDGE, state-run primaries attract more voters because more polling places are open, which can be both good and bad, said political activists.

Local governments open polling places in every precinct during a state-run primary. Political parties only make voting available in a few places — usually one or two — during a "firehouse" primary.

The differences between voting availability in the two types of primaries can be striking. For example, voting was available at only one location during the 2003 Democratic "firehouse" primary for the Providence District seat on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. This year, 26 polling places will be open for the same race in a state-run primary.

While making more sites available for voting, the state-run primary is more expensive for the taxpayer, said Smyth. Since "firehouse" primaries are run and paid for by the party, they come at no expense to residents. State-run primaries require local governments like Fairfax County to open and staff all of the precincts, she said.

"You have to look at it from the taxpayers’ perspective," said Smyth, who would have preferred to face Hall in a "firehouse" primary. In 2003, Smyth defeated Becky Cate and Pat Morrison during the "firehouse primary" and won the general election over Republican candidate Jim Hyland.

She added that the races are also more expensive for those participating, since the candidates have to reach a broader audience of voters.

"DEMOCRATS have been the party in Virginia that is more likely to hold open primaries," said David Wassermen, co-editor of "Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball," an electronic newsletter published by Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

Although it is fairly common for states not to have party registration — Virginia is one of 22 states without party affiliation — it is very unusual for states’ to allow parties to select their own nominating process, said Wasserman.

Selecting a nominating process can bring out deep divides within a political party, particularly on the Republican side, he said.

Democrats tend to stick either to a state-run or a "firehouse" primary when nominating candidates. But Republicans branch out more, sometimes using a convention method — similar to those used in presidential races — to select their nominee. The decision about which process to use can cause tension within the party, said Wasserman.

"At the heart of this is conflict is a war between moderate and conservative Republicans. The fact is that in Virginia, moderate Republicans would prefer that many participate instead of a few," said Wasserman.

THE DEBATE over "firehouse" primaries verses conventions took center stage in Loudoun County in recent elections. The Loudoun County Republican Committee voted this spring to hold a convention June 9 for contested nominations to the local Board of Supervisors, even though several more moderate Republicans favored the "firehouse" primary.

The Loudoun convention requires people to sign up a month ahead of time and spend several hours on a Saturday afternoon selecting a candidate. Opponents of the process said it limits participation, particularly of those with children who cannot devote an entire afternoon to selecting a candidate.

"With a convention process, you have to sign up delegates in advance. A person has to sign up by May 6 in order to exercise their constitutional right to vote," said Loudoun Supervisor Lori Waters (R-Broad Run) who is running for re-election and favored a "firehouse" primary, but will instead face a convention.

As a mother of a toddler, Waters added that she found it difficult to believe young parents would be able to easily participate in a convention process.

But the Loudoun County Republican Committee has had more success in the general election when it has used the convention method, said party chairman Paul Protic.

"Over the last five cycles for local races, when we have done a convention format, the Republicans have kept control," said Protic.

The convention helps rally the party’s base and gives candidates a good opportunity to recruit volunteers for their campaign, he said.

AT LEAST ONE defector decided to leave the Loudoun Republicans as a result of the convention format.

"When the committee decided to do a convention process [in 2003], I decided I was going to run as an Independent," said Loudoun Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott York (I- At-Large). "They chose a convention process which takes much much longer than a primary. It is very inconvenient for a lot of Republican voters with children at home."

During the 2003 election, York defeated Republican nominee Bob Gordon in the general election by a margin of 368 votes. Democratic nominee Al Van Huyck took third in the race.