A sign at the Troutville precinct in Botetourt County. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
A sign at the Troutville precinct in Botetourt County. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Some Frederick County Republicans think too many people voted in last month’s state Senate primary.

Specifically, some are unhappy that some Democrats may have voted in the eight-way contest. The county’s Republican committee is looking into adopting a resolution to object to Virginia’s system of open primaries. 

According to The Winchester Star, one attendee asked: “How do we stop Democrats from voting in our Republican elections? It was frustrating to watch this at the polls on Tuesday.” 

Del. Dave LaRock, the runner-up in that election, posted on primary day that “unfortunately, I’ve personally witnessed the Democrats working to undermine our Republican Primary.” A post-election post on LaRock’s Facebook page generated a lively discussion about Democrats voting in the primary. Here’s a pretty good summation of the back-and-forth:

You were robbed by the crooked democrats. I’m beginning to see a pattern here. The voting system must be fixed. It was setup thinking people were honest Not corrupt as the Democrats are.

How was he robbed?? 11,104 people did NOT vote for him?!!! Were they all Dems?? Don’t think so!!!!

A few commenters pointed out the irony of Republicans complaining that Democrats might have voted in the state Senate primary because just over the Blue Ridge Mountains in Loudoun County and Fairfax County, Republican committees openly urged their activists to vote in the Democratic primaries. (Fun fact: Loudoun County Republicans inexplicably sent one of their text messages urging a vote in the Democratic primary to the phone of a Cardinal News staff member who has never lived in Loudoun.) That Republican get-out-the-vote effort for the Democratic primary led the Loudoun County Democratic Committee to complain that “desperate, unethical” Republicans were trying to “steal OUR Democratic primary election.” 

One of the text messages that Loudoun County Republicans sent out.
One of the text messages that Loudoun County Republicans sent out urging a vote in the Democratic primary.

Who knew there would be such unanimity between the parties — or such differing value systems between Republicans in Frederick County and Fairfax and Loudoun counties? Or, perhaps, between Democrats in those same places?

Let’s try to untangle this.

We’ll start with the law. All this cross-party voting is perfectly legal because Virginia is one of 18 states that don’t register voters by party. I always laugh when a Virginian professes their party loyalty by claiming to be a “registered Democrat” or a “registered Republican” because in the Old Dominion there’s no such thing. That means when there’s a state-run party primary, any registered voter can vote.

Of the other 32 states that do register voters by party, there are a surprising number of other variations possible. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only nine have completely “closed” primaries, open only to party registrants. The others have multiple ways to allow for independents to vote in a party primary or sometimes even cross party lines. 

Another of the text messages that Loudoun County Republicans sent out urging a vote in the Democratic primary.
Another of the text messages that Loudoun County Republicans sent out urging a vote in the Democratic primary.

Over the years, Republicans in Virginia have generally been more keen on party registration than Democrats. Republican efforts to change state law have always failed, though, even when Republicans controlled the General Assembly. 

Virginia also has a colorful history when it comes to cross-party voting. Many Republicans gleefully voted in the 1977 Democratic primary for governor to cast ballots for Henry Howell, the most liberal — and, to Republican eyes, weakest — candidate. Future Republican governor and senator George Allen boasted that he was one of those. Whether those Republicans made a difference is a matter of debate. Howell won an upset over Andrew Miller by 13,638 votes — were there really that many Republicans who voted in the Democratic primary? Many analysts attributed Howell’s win not to an infusion of Republican voters but to Miller not turning out as many voters as expected. I’ve always been more partial to that interpretation. The parties were in the midst of a historic realignment in those days, but Howell was simply closer to where the Democratic base was going than Miller was. This isn’t scientific but if there were really that many Republican voters in the Democratic primary, we’d have likely an unusual pro-Howell trend in most of the Republican-voting localities — but Miller carried those Republican counties while Howell won and often won big in the more identifiably Democratic communities. 

Cross-party voting also became an issue in the 1996 Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Two years earlier, then-U.S. Sen. John Warner had angered many on the right by refusing to back Oliver North in his Senate bid against Democratic Sen. Charles Robb. Those conservative party activists hoped to oust Warner; Warner responded by appealing to those outside the party. “Everybody’s got a right to participate,” Warner pointed out. Interestingly, Warner’s opponent discounted this threat. “The notion that John has that all these Democrats are going to come on and give him a big wet kiss because he saved Chuck Robb for them … I just don’t think [it] will happen,” Jim Miller said. “It’s just going to be hard to motivate them to turn out.” Warner won in a landslide, with 65% of the vote and a margin of 153,505 votes. I don’t doubt that some Democrats voted, but I don’t believe 153,505 of them did. 

So now we turn to the more recent examples. Did Democrats make the difference in that eight-way race for a Republican state Senate nomination in the northern Shenandoah Valley? Shenandoah County farmer Timmy French won by 1,261 votes, so if Democrats did make a difference, that’s how many of them it would have taken. In the context of a legislative primary, that’s a pretty decent margin. For context, that margin alone is more than three of the other Republican candidates polled — and they had organized campaigns that raised, respectively, $190,097, $90,092 and $85,176. Could Democrats, in an apparently unorganized fashion, have furtively produced more votes than those three Republicans with reasonably well-funded campaigns? I’m skeptical. For what it’s worth, Republicans mounted an organized campaign for certain Democrats in Loudoun and Fairfax and none of their preferred candidates won there.

Still, it’s undeniable that some people who identify with one party can and sometimes do vote in the other party’s primary. Is that ethical? I’ll let the ethicists among you debate that. However, I’ll pose this potentially complicating question: Does motivation matter?

Those Loudoun County Republicans who were sending out text messages urged a vote for four specific Democrats: one in the commonwealth’s attorney’s race, three in different General Assembly districts. Their motivations appear to differ. In the three legislative races, they urged a vote for those they considered to be the weaker candidates — and were, as evidenced by the fact that all three lost. “It’s a strategy designed to weaken the Democratic Party; nominating less competitive candidates for the general election can only help Republicans,” University of Mary Washington political analyst Stephen Farnsworth told Washington, D.C., television station WRC-TV, otherwise known as NBC4. In other words, Republicans were meddling there, just as they were back in 1977 when they wanted people to vote for Henry Howell. (Whether Republicans were responsible or not, that bet paid off — Republican John Dalton, who had been considered an underdog against Miller, went on to defeat Howell that year.) 

In the commonwealth’s attorney race, though, Loudoun Republicans seemed more motivated to oust the incumbent, one of those so-called “progressive prosecutors.” Whether cross-party voting is ethical or not, that seemed a more principled stand — Republicans preferred the more moderate of the two candidates. They seemed to recognize that Loudoun is pretty blue these days so whoever won that primary was likely to be the next prosecutor — and they really didn’t want the more liberal Buta Biberaj. (The gambit failed; Biberaj took nearly 55% of the vote.)  

Fairfax Republicans felt the same way about the county’s Democratic prosecutor. In that case, there is no Republican nominee for commonwealth’s attorney so the Democratic primary really was the election. “This race was just too important, too critical to public safety in Fairfax County,” Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity, a Republican, told WRC-TV. He urged Republicans to vote for Ed Nuttall, a more moderate challenger to incumbent Steve Descano. Once again, no dice. Descano won with 55% of the vote.

Does the prospect of an uncontested election in the fall make it OK for Republicans to vote in a Democratic primary in a deep blue locality — or for Democrats to vote in a Republican primary in a deep red locality? If yes, then we’re condoning people crossing party lines. If no, then we’re delegating our electoral choices to a relatively small handful of party activists on one side or another, who might be far from the mainstream. Our growing political polarization along geographical lines makes these kinds of one-party districts more and more likely. After the primary, I heard from one Democrat in Roanoke County who said she voted in the Republican primary for Catawba District Supervisor Martha Hooker because she considered challenger Tom McCracken to be an “extremist” — and without a Democratic candidate in the fall, that was the only way she could have a say in who represented her. Was she right or wrong? In the end, it didn’t matter. McCracken dropped out a few days before the election and Hooker took more than 88% of the vote.

Senate District 1. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.
Senate District 1. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.

In the case of that northern Shenandoah Valley state Senate race — Senate District 1, for those who want the number — there is a Democratic candidate in the fall. Let’s be realistic, though: This is a district that votes 68% Republican. As a practical matter, if any Democrats voted in the Republican primary, they probably weren’t voting for who they believed the weakest Republican might be, because there might not be such a thing. Whoever won that eight-way Republican primary would have an easy road to Richmond. If Democrats voted, they were probably voting for the Republican they considered least objectionable.

This was also a contest where six candidates were vying to be the most conservative candidate in the field, while two — French being one of them — were content simply to declare themselves conservatives. Even if most Republican voters wanted the most conservative candidate, however they defined most conservative, that lane was pretty crowded. Those six candidates simply split the vote, so it’s not surprising to me that French won. While I’ve written previously that money isn’t a determining factor in campaigns, money does help — and French was well-funded. In fact, he was the second best-funded candidate in the race. The notion that any Democrats who were voting were “undermining” the Republican Party by voting for French on the theory that he was the weakest candidate is ludicrous; they might have been “undermining” hard-core conservative activists in the Republican Party but it looks to me as if whoever voted in that Republican primary may well have nominated the strongest candidate available. 

If Shenandoah Valley Democrats really wanted to undermine the Republican Party, they should have voted for the candidate who wanted to abolish the state’s mandate for a public school system. That might have given Democrats an outside shot — they could have wrapped themselves in the mantle of the 19th century Republicans who insisted on a mandate for public schools as a condition of Virginia’s readmission to the Union. Instead, that candidate finished seventh in an eight-way race. 

None of this, though, addresses the fundamental question: Should Virginia require voter registration by party?

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