Some bills just keep popping up every year like a bad penny.
Take the annual effort to require Virginians to identify their political party affiliation or declare themselves independents when they register to vote.
This year, Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Prince William, is doing the honors.
Lingamfelter tried unsuccessfully this year to win his party’s nomination for lieutenant governor. GOP conventioneers instead chose E.W. Jackson, whose divisive rhetoric made his loss in the general election inevitable.
After a grim election season, some Republicans have called for introspection and party-building reforms such as the use of open primaries to choose nominees.
Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling recently wrote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “we should nominate our candidates in open statewide primaries, where hundreds of thousands of people with differing viewpoints can participate. Instead of being viewed as an exclusive party, we would then be viewed as an inclusive party that is focused on nominating candidates who reflect the diverse views of a changing Virginia.”
But other Republicans, including Lingamfelter, fear too much openness. Their solution is to force all voters to identify themselves as Democrat, Republican or indifferent.
Each party could then restrict voting in its primaries to its own partisans, with the option, but no obligation, to include independents as well.
Nonpartisan voter registration has long been a tradition in Virginia. Tradition alone is not a good reason for its continuance. But tradition has been replaced with necessity as gerrymandering has snuffed out much of the competition in general elections, so that the outcomes are decided in primaries. In this year’s House of Delegates races, for example, 45 of 100 members had no opposition in the general election, while another 13 won with 70 percent or more of the vote.
State legislators are more motivated to act as defenders of their own safe seats than defenders of democracy. But they’re also reliable pinchers of the public penny, and thus Lingamfelter’s bill is likely to be a tough sell, as similar versions have been in past years.
Voters who want to make sure they can participate in primaries would need to declare their party affiliation and obtain new registration cards. Legislative analysts last year estimated the printing and mailing costs would total between $1 million and $1.3 million over two years, plus $80,000 to rejigger the state’s registration database and $25,000 for pollbook updates. It all amounts to a particularly wasteful exercise given that Gov. Bob McDonnell just spent $2 million mailing new registration cards, minus party affiliation, to all voters to comply with the new voter identification law.
There are other ways for political parties to rebuff potential recruits, if that is their wish. Republicans and Democrats can and often do require loyalty oaths to participate in their primaries. The oath may not be worth the paper it’s written on, but at least it’s not costing taxpayers a dime.