Obenshain vs. Petersen on Party Registration

Senators Obenshain & Petersen from their respective Facebook pages
Senators Obenshain & Petersen from their respective Facebook pages

On Tuesday, SB 1060 came to the floor of the Virginia Senate.  Sponsored by Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham), this bill would bring the state voter registration by political party.  Doing so would create closed or semi-closed primaries where only declared members of a political party (and perhaps independents) could participate in a given party primary.

A fair number of liberty-minded Republicans and Libertarians have taken to Facebook to oppose SB 1060; some of us have contacted Senator Obenshain’s office as well.  I listed my objections to this idea in a piece last week.  In addition, both Deb Fitzgerald, the Chairman of the Harrisonburg Democratic Party, and I offered our concerns in Wednesday’s issue of the Daily News Record.

On the Senate floor, Senator Obenshain was the lead proponent of the bill while Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) was the most vocal opponent.  Senator Obenshain declared that by passing party registration, Virginia would conform to a majority of other states.  In addition, doing so would grant political parties the power to “choose who gets to participate in that…process.” As Senator Petersen stated, “there are two winners from this bill.  One is the Republican Party, the other one is the Democratic Party.  The parties are going to get so much more power if this bill passes.  But let me tell you who is going to lose.  It’s going to be ordinary people that just want to participate in elections.”  As Senator Petersen goes on to say, those who are outside the two major parties (such as Libertarians), or others who desire to switch political parties could find themselves completely excluded from the process.  Unfortunately, the Republican Party of Virginia has already moved in this direction, reviving the much reviled loyalty oath and changing their party plan last year by expelling members who participate in the nomination process of other parties.  In addition, Senators John Watkins (R-Powhatan) and Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax County) also explained why they would not support party registration.

The vote that followed was exceedingly close, 19-21, following mostly along party lines.  Every Republican voted in favor except Senators Watkins and Walter Stosch (R-Henrico) who joined with the Democrats to defeat SB 1060.

HB 1518, Delegate Steve Landes’ (R-Augusta) party registration bill also died yesterday as the Privilege and Elections subcommittee failed to recommend reporting it to the floor of the House of Delegates.

Below is the full debate on SB 1060.  Thanks to Blue Virginia for posting this video to YouTube.

Registering for the Party!?

Senator Obenshain
Senator Obenshain on Lobby Day 2015

For those who don’t know, Virginia is an open primary state.  That means that when a political party holds a primary, any registered voter can participate so long as he or she does not vote in the primary of more than one party for a given office.  Whether you consider yourself to be a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green, Constitutional, Socialist, something else, or an independent, you can vote in most every primary.  Well, that situation may be about to change.

This year, there are two bills before the General Assembly that create party registration.  They are HB 1518 patroned by Delegate Steve Landes (R-Augusta) and SB 1060 by Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham).  Presumably the purpose in crafting this legislation is to prevent members of an opposing party to participate in primaries.

In general, most grassroots activists I have spoken with thus far are opposed to party registration.  Some cite the fact that they don’t want to officially be a part of any political party while others have concerns what would happen if these party lists ended up in the wrong hands.  Some compare it to the idea of gun registration.  They argue that if we don’t believe it is appropriate for the government to have a gun registry, why would we allow them a political registry?  I oppose it too, but for different reasons.

In response to these bills, I have spoken directly with Delegate Landes and with a staffer for Senator Obenshain.  As mentioned, on Lobby Day, I encouraged several members of the General Assembly to vote against these bills as well as speaking at length with my senator’s political director about my concerns.  Although I was informed that they would send me information as to why the senator is proposing such legislation, the only answer I have been given after several days is that “this bill provides either party, Republican or Democrat, greater control over who can participate in their party’s nominating process.”  Unfortunately, I expect that I shall hear nothing further.

Therefore, let me share my objections with you.

We live in a country grounded in political freedom.  With the exception of felons who have not have their voting rights restored, everyone eighteen years or older who has properly registered to vote is allowed to do so regardless of race, religion, gender, or political preference.  Here in Virginia we can enjoy this freedom in primaries as well.

As a result, I’ve voted in just about every primary that I can.  This has included voting in: the 2004 Democratic presidential primary, the 2006 Democratic senatorial primary, the 2008 Republican presidential primary, the 2012 Republican presidential, house, and senatorial primary, and the 2013 Democratic statewide primary.  Some people vote for the weakest candidate in the hopes to defeat him or her in the general election.  Others do so in order to vote for the candidate whom we believe most closely aligns with our values.  But whatever the reason, positive or negative, many of us appreciate the ability to cast our vote freely and according to the dictates of what we think is best.  Unfortunately, these bills for party registration would chip away or completely eliminate that freedom.

Did you know that party primaries are not paid for by the political parties that hold them but rather the Virginia taxpayers?  Given that information, can you, in good conscience, support a bill that forces a citizen to pay for a primary and also forbids them from taking part in it?  In what universe is that considered just?

Another objection stems from the political demographics of the state.  In some places, like Rockingham or Augusta County, the Republican nominee will almost certainly be the winner of the general election.  In others, like Williamsburg, Charlottesville, or Alexandria, the Democratic candidate is a near certainty for victory.  Imagine yourself as either a Democrat living in a Republican area or as a Republican living in a Democratic stronghold.  Assuming you wish to have any voice in who represents you in government, your best and perhaps only hope is to participate in the primary of the opposing party so that you can vote for the most like-minded candidate.  These bills would ensure that if you were part of a political minority your opinion, no matter how small, could be completely ignored.

Also, it should be pointed out that primaries are unjustly applied.  Although the Democratic and Republican Parties can hold primaries at taxpayer expense, others such as the Libertarians or Greens cannot do so as they are not officially recognized political parties.  In fact, there are a considerable number of laws in place in Virginia to keep new and existing parties from being recognized, such as the onerous 10% hurdle.  Senator Obenshain’s bill, SB 1060, adds yet another layer stating that it “allows an official political party to retain that status as long as at least 15 percent of the Commonwealth’s registered voters are registered as affiliated with that party.”  It is exceedingly difficult to create new political competition through starting up a new political party when the current ones have laws to keep them firmly entrenched.

Given the poor job the Republican Party’s leadership has done in recent years through enacting the largest tax increase in Virginia history, continuing to expand the authority of the government, and creating rules that erode our political freedom to support the candidate that best supports our values and voting in any primaries that we are forced to pay for, why in heaven’s name would Delegate Landes and Senator Obenshain propose bills which give the two major political parties even more power?  Without competition, there is no incentive to become better, more principled, or more responsive to the people who entrusted you with power in the first place.

On the last page of my political memoir (which I hope to get published one of these days) I quote Richard Obenshain, father of Senator Obenshain, who stated that “the most important goal in my life is to have some significant impact in preserving and expanding the realm of personal freedom in the life of this country.”  Will enacting party registration in Virginia further this goal of expanding freedom in politics?  And, if not, grassroots activists have the right to know why in the hell our legislators are proposing such a plan!