WASHINGTON – The Republican Party of Virginia filed a lawsuit Thursday asking the courts to remove Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe from the ballot for failing to sign an official form declaring his candidacy. The McAuliffe campaign dismissed the suit as “desperate" and “Trumpian.”
McAuliffe won a June primary election for the Democratic nomination. But the lawsuit argues that McAuliffe should be disqualified from running in the November general election because of the omission of his signature — a move election experts say is unlikely.
"The declaration must be declared legally insufficient, and McAuliffe must be disqualified from appearing on any general election ballot,” Republicans wrote in a complaint filed in Richmond Circuit Court.
Renzo Olivari, a McAuliffe spokesperson, dismissed the suit, saying the campaign had submitted the required paperwork.
"This is nothing more than a desperate Trumpian move by the Virginia GOP to deprive voters of a choice in this election because Terry is consistently leading in the polls," he said in a statement.
The formal “declaration of candidacy” McAuliffe submitted to the state’s board of elections to enter the Democratic primary in March is indeed missing his signature — the box he was supposed to sign was left blank, along with lines asking for his phone numbers —- though two witnesses’ signatures were included on the form. The suit also argues the witnesses — including Olivari — violated state law because they could not have witnessed a signing that didn't happen.
McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor and longtime fixture of Democratic politics, is running for a second term against Republican Glenn Youngkin, a former executive at an investment fund. McAuliffe previously held the office from 2014 to 2018, but was prohibited by state law from seeking a consecutive term.
The Virginia Department of Elections declined to comment. But several state election law experts said they would be surprised if the suit had legs.
“I predict that this lawsuit will fail,” said Michael Gilbert, the vice dean of the University of Virginia School of Law. While he said that candidates are indeed sometimes removed from the ballot because of sloppy paperwork, he doubted that would happen in this case.
“The violation is harmless, and the remedy sought — removing McAuliffe from the general election ballot in November — is extreme. That remedy would scramble a lot of plans and frustrate a lot of voters, all in service of a minor rule (so minor that no one noticed the error earlier)," he wrote in an email. "It’s hard to see how that would promote democracy in the Commonwealth.”
Rick Hasen, an election law expert who teaches at the University of California, Irvine, said that states have varying standards when it comes to enforcing election rules, with some states much more forgiving of “technical difficulties” than others.
But “as a general matter, it would be surprising to see a court knock a major candidate for office off the ballot for a technicality," he said.
Virginia is the only state in the nation with an open race for governor this year, and the contest is being closely watched as a barometer of voter sentiment heading into next year's midterm elections, which will determine which party controls Congress. Republicans are hoping to break their more than decade-long losing streak in statewide races.
In 2019, Nick Freitas, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, was forced to run a write-in campaign after he was disqualified because of a paperwork snafu.
___ Associated Press writer Sarah Rankin contributed to this report.