Virginians would state their political party affiliation when they register to vote beginning next year, under legislation that cleared a divided state Senate committee today.
The bill also would give the state’s political parties the authority to decide whether to open their nominating primaries to all registered voters or to limit participation in those elections.
Senate Bill 62 cleared the Republican-controlled Senate Privileges and Elections Committee by a party-line vote of 8-7, despite objections from Democratic senators who raised concerns about the cost of implementing party registration and further diluting participation in party primaries. The bill now goes to the full Senate.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Bill Stanley of Franklin County, said party registration would reduce the likelihood that voters loyal to one party would meddle in the nominating contests of a rival party. Stanley said most states already have party registration for primary elections.
“If we look at the vast majority of the states, they have had no voter suppression base don this, they have had no irregularities based on this,” Stanley said. “This is a bill whose time has come.”
Under Stanley’s bill, voter registration applications would include a space for the applicant to state a political party affiliation. If the space is left blank, the voter will be designated as an independent in registration records.
Virginians who already are registered to vote would be listed as independents, but they could change their party registration status by providing written notice to their local registrars. Voters who change their status would receive a new voter card only if they request one.
Under the legislation, state party chairmen would file a written notice with the state board of elections each year regarding the rules of participation in their respective primaries. The rules would apply to all statewide and district-level primaries for that year.
Justin Riemer, the deputy secretary of the state board of elections, told the Senate committee that the board would work to hold down the cost of implementing the party registration provision, but Democrats voiced skepticism.
“This is such a radical change from what we’ve done in this state and it would take millions of dollars to educate the voters that we’re making this change,” said Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax.
“Somebody’s going to have to go into 5 million registered voters listed on those poll books and put that in,” said Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Russell County. “How do you do that at no cost?”
Riemer said general registrars could update that information on the state’s voter registration system.
Lynn Gordon, the president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, said the party registration provision would be a “huge imposition” on already-registered voters who might seek to change their party affiliation.
Stanley said he would expect both parties to continue having open primaries two or three years after party registration took effect, giving voters and the parties time to adapt to the change. He said the political parties, not the state, should bear the responsibility of educating voters about the change.
The full Senate today defeated a bill that would prohibit incumbent office-holders from insisting on primary elections when they face a challenger from within their own party. Senate Bill 276 also would prohibit General Assembly incumbents from dictating the method of nomination when they face an intraparty challenge.
Sen. Ralph Smith, R-Roanoke County, said his bill would create “a level playing field” for political candidates. But the Senate voted 26-13 to defeat the bill.
“We’re not entitled to any more than the next guy come Election Day,” said Smith, who knocked off an incumbent Republican on his way to winning his first Senate election in 2007.
– Michael Sluss