Virginia “Loyalty Oath” to Cost Commonwealth More Than $62K – and Might Not Be Used

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This post was updated at about 9:40am Central time. See below.

On March 1, Virginia voters will head to the polls to cast ballots in the state’s presidential primary. While most coverage of the race will focus on the race for the nominations, one facet of the GOP primary has already been a long-running source of debate and controversy. In particular, the plan until recently has been for voters who choose to cast a Republican ballot (the state does not have closed primaries) to sign an oath affirming that they are members of the GOP.

That requirement has led to criticism – especially from the Trump campaign, who says it will deter independents and first-time voters – and a unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to block the oath. Over the weekend, the state party voted not to require the oath and has asked the Department of Elections (ELECT, who is administering the primary and was originally asked to use it) to drop it.

Whether or not the oath gets used, however, the Department of Elections has already spent taxpayer funds to print and distribute the oath. The Richmond Times-Dispatch has more:

The Virginia Department of Elections spent more than $62,000 to print and mail the controversial loyalty oath requested by the Republican Party of Virginia, according to a state official.

At nearly $53,000, the largest expense was printing the nearly 3 million forms containing the so-called statement of affiliation, which could be shelved for the March 1 primary after a Republican party committee voted over the weekend to ask the state not to implement the oath. The State Board of Elections has called a special meeting for Thursday morning to discuss the Republicans’ request to stop the oath.

Martin Mash, a policy adviser for the elections agency, provided a list of costs Tuesday. In an email, Mash gave a direct cost estimate of $62,398, but said there may be other costs not factored in to that amount. The spending covers printing and mailing, but not staff time or legal work.

That has led to some predictable partisan outrage (which I’ll skip here but you can read at the link) but also to an interesting observation from the GOP party spokesman:

David D’Onofrio, a spokesman for the state Republican Party, said the party offered to cover the costs of printing, but the state didn’t act on the offer.

In a letter dated Nov. 24, the party offered to pay for the production and shipping of the extra forms as long as the party could decide “the printer, material, and size of the documents.” Election paperwork is normally treated as property of the state.

D’Onofrio said the party had obtained its own cost estimate for printing that was lower than the expense incurred by the state.

“It seems like they’re wasting money on the printing unnecessarily,” D’Onofrio said. “That’s the State Board of Elections’ problem. Not our problem.”

Unfortunately, those comments betray a lack of understanding about the way election administration works. In the past, the parties in Virginia have sometimes used so-called “firehouse primaries”, where the parties themselves administer the vote using paper ballots or some other unofficial process. This primary, on the other hand, is an official election conducted under state law – which means that not only must the agency responsible (ELECT) design and print documents but also that such forms and documents must conform to state requirements. Parties may be free to choose any rules they like, but once the decision is made to run a state election all of the appropriate rules (and associated costs) apply. [UPDATE: I heard from someone who’s familiar with these processes who says that ELECT “could have negotiated to ensure the documents conformed to the state requirements while allowing the [party] to pick up the cost of printing/shipping” but apparently failed to do so. The commenter observes that “in this era of tight resources [that] was not smart.” If so, I agree.]

This is why it’s always appropriate for policymakers and parties to look beyond just the political impact of election rules to an assessment of their administrative burden (including cost). As noted above, the State Board of Elections will meet this week to decide on the future of the oath – but the money spent to administer it is already in the past.

Stay tuned …

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