Candidate fights, in court, for right to party

A court in Virginia is weighing whether the First Amendment guarantees the right be affiliated with a political party.

Federal District Court Judge Hannah Lauck Wednesday denied a request by Powhatan County Republicans who sought to have a supervisor candidate run using the Republican label. 

Virginia traditionally minimizes party affiliation in elections. Voters do not register with any particular party, and in many state elections ballot information does not include the candidate's party affiliation.  

Board of supervisors candidate Bob Marcellus, however, wants to run as a Republican, and the county's GOP committee wants to help him do that. The Republicans asked the court for for indicative relief in their lawsuit against the State Board of Elections.

Their argument: that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of freedom of assembly gives candidates the right to run for office with a party label. 

Marcellus' lawyer, former Republican Party of Virginia General Counsel Pat McSweeney, argued that State Board rules barring the use of party labels for supervisor candidates violated their First Amendment rights of free association.

Lauck ruled against the plaintiffs' request, but without deciding the issue of the state's suppression of party affiliation. Instead, Lauck agreed with the state attorney general's office, which argued that Marcellus had waited too long to file his suit and that granting injunctive relief would have placed too great a burden on county election boards to make changes to their printed ballots.

Marcellus said in his suit that adding party affiliation to the ballot would add transparency to the voting process, giving voters essential information they need to make informed decisions on election day. He also provided evidence that state officials themselves don't have a clear reason for disallowing open party affiliation.

In court documents, Marcellus disclosed an email exchange with the State Board of Elections that showed confusion as to why party ID was not allowed for board of supervisor candidates. Brooks Braun, a policy analyst with the Virginia Department of Elections, wrote that one possible reason board candidates were not identified by party related to the federal Hatch Act. "There is some Hatch Act justification. The Hatch Act puts certain restrictions on state and local officials [whose] salary is paid by federal money. The second is that there is some budget concern."

Braun conceded that both of these concerns "sounded dubious."

The court's decision does not prevent the case from going to a full hearing, which could result in a decision before the November election. While it will be too late to address Marcellus's immediate concerns, he is still confident of victory.

"We think we have a great case and always knew that an injunction had to meet a very high hurdle," Marcellus told American Media Institute. "We were disappointed that the attorney general argued against greater transparency because I had lifelong Democrats and Independents arguing with me for party ID. It's not partisan at all."