The 9th District. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.

Our part of Virginia is a wellspring for music – country, bluegrass, old-time (which aficionados know is not the same thing). Now we have an uptick in people singing the blues. In this case, would-be political candidates who have found they did not make the June 21 primary ballot because they didn’t submit enough signatures.

The 5th District.

In the 5th District, Josh Throneburg has been declared the Democratic nominee because he was the only one who filed the required number of signatures to get on the ballot. That means Andy Parker – famous as a gun control advocate after his daughter was slain on live TV – won’t be on the ballot. Here’s a man with nearly 60,000 Twitter followers, and who has raised nearly $200,000, but his campaign couldn’t manage to collect 1,000 valid signatures. He says he’s consulting with an attorney.

Meanwhile, in the 9th District, Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, has been declared the Republican nominee after challenger Kimberly Lowe – most famous for getting into a dispute with a butterfly sanctuary in Texas – fell short in her petition drive. In interviews with The Roanoke Times and Lynchburg television station WSET-TV, she’s crying the blues. Not as well as Buddy Guy or Bonnie Raitt, but a version of the blues nonetheless.

Lowe claims a conspiracy among party leaders – the “party establishment,” she calls it – to keep her off the ballot.

“They’re just doing everything they can do to keep me off the ballot,” Lowe told The Roanoke Times. “I’ve been on the path to win this seat. With my name on the ballot, I win the seat. They know it, and that’s why they’re stopping me.”

The law requires 1,000 signatures of registered voters in the district. Lowe says she turned in 1,400 to the party’s district chairman.

“He decided not to certify those, I find it extremely impossible that they are not valid,” Lowe told WSET-TV. “There’s no way that they could throw out that many petition signatures. They’re just doing whatever they can do to keep me off the ballot.”

Oh, please.

There’s a word for this, but I’ll be a gentleman and not use it. Balderdash will have to do instead.

There is no conspiracy here. The party “establishment” no doubt does prefer Griffith – a six-term incumbent who doesn’t seem out of line with party orthodoxy – but that’s not why Lowe has failed to make the ballot. In fact, her failure to make the ballot is almost predictable. It’s time for some context.

To make a primary ballot in Virginia, a House candidate has to file 1,000 signatures of registered voters in the district and pay a $3,480 filing fee, according to Ballotpedia.

Those signatures would not seem such an onerous requirement but they’re more difficult to gather than you might think because many people aren’t registered to vote. A 2020 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation says that 76% of adults in Virginia are registered to vote – which means if you’re standing outside a grocery store trying to collect signatures, probably one of every four people you encounter won’t be registered. But here’s the thing: Many of them will say they are and sign a candidate’s petition anyway. The Virginia Democratic Party advises candidates that to get 1,000 valid signatures, they should turn in 1,500. Lowe’s a Republican but the Democratic math seems a good guide. Lowe turned in about 1,400 signatures, but the Republican Party, which has to validate all this for the state, says only 889 were valid. That sounds about right, percentage-wise – 1,000 of 1,500 would be 66%, her rate was 64%. Lowe says it’s “extremely impossible” to believe she had so many invalid signatures. Actually, it’s quite possible – indeed, it should be expected. Democrats say Parker turned in 1,093 but only 937 were valid. Percentage-wise, Parker’s campaign did much better – 85.7% were valid – but just didn’t have enough.

They are not alone. In the 2012 Republican presidential primary, four candidates – Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum – didn’t turn in enough signatures to make the Virginia primary ballot, which is why the 2012 Republican primary in Virginia just listed Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. Now, the rules for a statewide primary ballot are different – more signatures (10,000) and the requirement that there must at least 400 from each congressional district. Those provisions complicate life for some national campaigns; they can’t just have a volunteer camp out in front of a Metro stop in Northern Virginia, they have to send someone down to Southwest and Southside and it’s always harder to collect signatures in a rural area simply because there aren’t as many places to find lots of people at once. Three of those 2012 candidates – Gingrich, Huntsman and Perry – sued in federal court but lost, mostly on the grounds that they had filed too late; ballots had to be printed on time. Later that year, a federal court did strike down one provision of Virginia’s law that required signature drives be conducted only by Virginia residents. The Libertarian Party, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, challenged that provision – which had also complicated many presidential campaigns that had no Virginia staffers to conduct petition drives.

In 2016, former New York Gov. George Pataki failed to turn in enough signatures for the Republican primary ballot in Virginia. In 2020, two lower-tier Democrats failed to make the Virginia presidential ballot – Julián Castro and John Delaney. Their campaigns didn’t last long so maybe that didn’t matter, but the point is: It’s not unheard-of for candidates to flunk the signature requirement. It takes more time and more effort than many campaigns expect.

The real question – which I notice neither Lowe nor Parker has asked – is what should the ballot requirements be?

Virginia is not the easiest state for ballot access – but not the hardest either.

Fifteen states require no petitions at all, according to Ballotpedia. Conservative Indiana appears to have the most liberal ballot access rules: no signatures, no filing fee, just a declaration of candidacy. Georgia has the steepest filing fee among the no-petitions states – $5,200.

Many other states require a pretty minimal number of signatures. Kentucky requires just two signatures and a $500 filing fee. Tennessee requires 25 signatures and no filing fee. Ohio requires 50 signatures and an $85 filing fee. Others are typically in the 300- to 500-signature range.

Virginia is in line with Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington – all of which require 1,000 signatures and filing fees of various amounts.

Some states, though, require more signatures. To get on the primary ballot for a congressional race in York requires 1,250 signatures. In Colorado, either 10% of votes cast for the office in the last primary, or 1,500, whichever is less. Iowa requires 1,726, with the stipulation that half the counties in the district must produce at least 47 names apiece, so you can’t just go to one location and load up with names. Our 5th District contains 25 localities, so depending on how you feel about odd numbers, if we used Iowa rules that would mean a candidate would have to get at least 47 signatures from each of 12 or 13 different localities. In the 9th District, with 27 localities, Iowa rules would mean 13 or 14 localities.

Arizona has different rules for each party and each congressional district – signature requirements are based on a percentage of the vote the winning candidate for governor or president polled in that district in the most recent election. Joe Biden won Arizona so that means a Republican candidate running in a staunchly Republican district doesn’t need to gather as many signatures as a Democrat running in a staunchly Democratic district. Arizona has helpfully computed the numbers – a Republican in that state’s 7th District needs just 880 signatures but a Republican in that state’s 4th District would need 2,150. Likewise, a Democrat running in that 4th District needs 1,359 signatures but a Democrat running in the 1st District needs 1,659. If Virginia used Arizona’s rules, Lowe might have had to file even more signatures because our 9th District is strongly Republican – Glenn Youngkin took 74.6% of the vote there. On the other hand, if Virginia went by presidential rules, she’d have needed fewer, since Biden carried the state but ran poorly in the 9th.

Washington state requires 1,740 signatures and a $1,740 filing fee.

Massachusetts has no fee but requires 2,000 signatures.

Florida charges the most to qualify for the ballot – $10,440 – and one of the steepest signature requirements – 2,568.

Utah is the hardest place to make the ballot – 7,000 signatures but a more modest $485 filing fee. To get on a primary ballot for a statewide race, such as U.S. Senate, a Utah candidate has to file 28,000 signatures.

Here’s one thing I notice: There seems to be no partisan trend here. Some so-called blue states have high-threshold requirements for the ballot (such as Massachusetts). Some so-called red ones have pretty low thresholds – so it’s not as easy as saying Democrats believe in greater ballot access and Republicans believe in less. They might have different ideas on voting rules but in terms of who gets listed on the ballot, not so much.

So how easy or hard should it be to get on the ballot? That would be an interesting debate to have – Parker and Lowe could team up to make a bipartisan case for the easier side. You don’t have to like either candidate to think that we’d be better off as a democracy if we had more choices. Lowe is more of a fringe candidate but Parker is a big name; 5th District Democrats might have benefited from a robust debate there before they settled on who should face the Republican nominee — mostly likely Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, who faces a challenge from Daniel Moy in a convention.

Lowe, though, is simply wrong when she tells The Roanoke Times “it’s a myth that anyone can run for office. The party chooses who’s going to be the nominee, and they don’t follow rules, and there’s never repercussions. There’s never accountability, and that’s why they get away with it.” She just didn’t file enough valid signatures, plain and simple. I’m not impressed by her bellyaching, unless she wants to make the case that Virginia law needs to be changed. She’s blaming the party but the party is just carrying out Virginia law.

Lowe says she may run as an independent. Good luck with that. She’ll need 1,000 signatures.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.