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Va. Loyalty Oath: GOP In A Sad Corner

There are plenty of states (20 and the District, to be precise) where you must register as a member of a political party to vote in its primary elections.

But Virginia, like 19 other states, has no such requirement: Anyone may vote in any primary, but only in one party's primary. (The remaining nine states generally make you declare yourself a member of a party to vote in its primary, but let you change your enrollment at the polls, effectively allowing anyone to vote in any primary in any given year.) The Virginia system eases the way for independents to take part in selecting nominees for president, governor, Senator and other positions.

But it also--at least in the minds of party officials searching for reasons why they might be losing elections--creates opportunities for mischief. The theory is that some voters deviously cross party lines and cast their ballot in the other guy's primary, either to support a lousy candidate and undermine that party's general election chances, or to push that party away from the ideological bent that its hard-core supporters would otherwise choose.

It's a theory without much hard evidence to support it, and it's a slap in the face of the one-third or so of the electorate that declines to identify with either the Democrats or the Republicans.

In Virginia, where the Republicans are in a bit of a panic about their declining fortunes at the polls, party chieftains proposed this fall to require voters to sign a loyalty oath when they arrive at February 12's presidential primary. But a firestorm of protest--mainly, to their credit, from party insiders appalled at the idea of presenting the GOP to the public as a closed society--forced the Republican leadership to back down, which they did this weekend.

Virginia Republicans have been eager to get rid of open primaries for more than a decade, fighting in the Legislature and in the courts to close the process. Much of the energy in this effort stems from sour memories of 1996, when Sen. John Warner used an open primary to foil his conservative opponents. Two years earlier, Warner, a moderate, had enraged his party's conservatives by supporting independent Marshall Coleman against conservative Republican Oliver North in the U.S. Senate race won by incumbent Chuck Robb. In retaliation for that bit of perceived disloyalty to his party, Warner's conservative opponents lined up behind a "Dump Warner" campaign in '96 and recruited James Miller to challenge Warner for the GOP nomination.

But Virginia law allows incumbents to choose whether to face intra-party opposition in a closed convention, where only party members participate, or in an open primary election. Warner, naturally, chose the primary, and many conservative Republicans believe to this day that it was only the votes of Democrats who crossed over to save Warner's job that delivered him the nomination and sent him on to victory that fall.

Studies of voting behavior, however, show that only a maximum of about 2 percent of voters cross party lines to vote in the other guy's primary. Voters just aren't nearly as devious or as calculating as political insiders make them out to be.

This fall, a federal appeals court ruled that Virginia's policy of allowing incumbents to choose between a nominating convention and a primary is unconstitutional. That makes Virginia's Republican party even more eager to get rid of open primaries. But it's highly unlikely that a Democratic Senate and Democratic governor would go along with such a change.

So the party is in a bit of a pickle. It wants to present itself as open and welcoming, yet continues to delude itself into thinking that it is dastardly Democrats, rather than genuinely torn independents, who are sneaking into the Republicans' private gathering and breaking with the party line. Luckily, lots of principled conservatives saw the loyalty oath idea as an unfair and un-American attempt at "politically correct thought control," as Tracy Mehan III put it in The American Spectator.

If Republicans were serious about reaching out to become a big tent party, they would not have chosen to pick their U.S. Senate candidate for next year's election via convention, but rather would have required former Gov. Jim Gilmore to face moderate Rep. Tom Davis in an open primary. Our polarized and increasingly unrepresentative politics needs every possible device to push candidates and parties back toward where most Americans live, in the center.

By Marc Fisher |  December 4, 2007; 7:28 AM ET
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Comments

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A decade or so ago when I lived in Virginia the Democrats were under siege and I had to sign a loyalty oath to vote in the primary. The door swings both ways.

Posted by: Josey23 | December 4, 2007 9:16 AM

I belong to no party - and any election that utilizes taxpayer-provided infrastructure should be open to anyone who is registered to vote.

If a party wants to hold it's own election then they should do just that and use their own money to do so.

This is how our country has been taken over by a two-party system that does not deserve to represent us.

Posted by: Larry G | December 4, 2007 9:17 AM

Loyalty oaths sound like a tool used by gangs and other criminal organizations to enforce discipline. Hardly proper for political parties in this day and age.

Posted by: Whose Side Are You On? | December 4, 2007 9:28 AM

I was one of those Democrat-leaning voters who voted for John Warner in the primary. I think it's pretty arrogant for the Republicans to be mad that the wrong Republican won the general election.

I don't think I did a dishonorable thing at all by voting in that primary. I voted for the best man to run for the Senate. At that time in Virginia, the primary virtually WAS the general election, just as the Democratic primary predicts November's winner in any DC election.

And I'm not certain, but I doubt that anyone has signed a loyalty pledge to vote in a primary in Virginia--Republican or Democrat. I believe what you sign is a pledge that you will only vote or take part in one party's primary that year.

Posted by: TBG | December 4, 2007 10:03 AM

I know that Ron Paul supporters were particularly incensed at the idea that they would be forced to sign a loyalty oath promising that they would vote for Giuliani or any of the other pro-war Republican candidates, should Ron Paul not win the nomination.

Posted by: Christina | December 4, 2007 10:20 AM

I think "do you support an open primary?" should be a question asked of all Virginia politicians in the future.

Because with 30+% of voters identifying themselves as independents, it is not fair to shut them out.

It's important to participate and protect one's right to vote in a meaningful manner. Because the elected official does not represent merely his/her party (or that's the theory), but all voters.

Posted by: Grace | December 4, 2007 10:34 AM

I will definitely be proudly wearing my VOTE FOR HILLARY button when I cast my ballot in the Virginia Republican Party primary. I think that Tom "Tancrazy" Tancredo looks like he is going to get my vote - I believe that he should get all of Virginia's electoral votes and will encourage my Democratic friends to turn out in large numbers to help make that a reality.

Posted by: jackstraw3457 | December 4, 2007 10:37 AM

I will definitely be proudly wearing my VOTE FOR HILLARY button when I cast my ballot in the Virginia Republican Party primary. I think that Tom "Tancrazy" Tancredo looks like he is going to get my vote - I believe that he should get all of Virginia's electoral votes and will encourage my Democratic friends to turn out in large numbers to help make that a reality.

Posted by: jackstraw3457 | December 4, 2007 10:39 AM

The Repuke party in VA is a joke. They have ruined this state with their radical approach to so-called government. Tell me again why voting bedroom issues gives us good government? We Virginians have the opportunity to send them a clear message next year. Vote out all repukes and force them to change their ways.

Posted by: capone1 | December 4, 2007 10:40 AM

Let the Republicans have closed primaries if they want. Fewer moderate voters will choose less electable candidates.

I'm just waiting for the "Re-elect (a) Warner" bumper stickers next year. ;)

Posted by: Lart from Above | December 4, 2007 10:57 AM

By my arithmetic and based on Marc's first two paragraphs, we seem to be missing a state. When did that happen?

Posted by: Mel | December 4, 2007 11:01 AM

It's ironic that a party that is becoming more marginalized in each election wants to exclude people who might broaden their base by requiring them to sign loyalty oaths. It won't be "Democrats making mischief" who vote in those primaries, but independents. Telling them they can't vote will only help drive more of them away. Not only has the GOP gotten to be too fanatical, they've gotten stupid, too.

Posted by: John | December 4, 2007 12:07 PM

Nice catch Mel. Looks like somebody didn't do his homework, again.

Posted by: SoMD | December 4, 2007 1:20 PM

Perhaps the "missing state" is Iowa, which has a caucus system, not primary elections.

Posted by: Mike Licht | December 4, 2007 2:15 PM

Hello, nice site :)

Posted by: Brin | December 4, 2007 2:32 PM

The proposed pledge was that the primary voter would then support the Republican nominee for president in the general election, no matter who that nominee might be. Such a thing had never been asked of voters before. Absurd. Unconstitutional. Unenforceable.

Posted by: crc | December 4, 2007 2:37 PM

crc: According to Tim Craig in the December 1 Post, such a loyalty pledge was required of voters in the 1995 Republican primary for chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

Here is the scary part: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia actually signed that pledge before voting in that election.

Posted by: Mike Licht | December 4, 2007 3:01 PM

If political parties want to be private clubs, as they say they do, then maybe it should be broughtto their attention that all other private clubs pay for their own private elections.
George Washington said in 1792 that political parties were self-created societies. That sounds like a private club to me. As an independent voter I do not want to be paying for the elections of any private clubs.
Robert B. Winn

Posted by: Robert B. Winn | December 4, 2007 8:19 PM

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