Matt Chaney | Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Dr. Stephen Parson just wanted to vote in the presidential primary for the candidate he thought was right for him and the country. That candidate, he said, is Donald Trump. And that meant voting in Virginia’s Republican primary.
But this was back in December, and Parson faced a problem: To vote in the state’s March 1 GOP primary, voters were told they had to sign a loyalty oath stating, “I am a Republican.” And Parson considers himself an independent.
So a little over a month ago, Parson sued the Republican Party of Virginia and the State Board of Elections to get the oath removed. Parson lost the legal battle but won the war: Because of the controversy, authorities rescinded the loyalty oath. As a result, any registered voter will be able to cast a ballot in the GOP presidential primary on Tuesday.
In a telephone interview this week, Parson expressed his belief that the GOP’s failed attempt to require a loyalty oath in order to vote in the March 1 primary would have kept many conservative but unaffiliated voters like himself from turning up at the polls.
“By removing that loyalty oath, there is going to be a greater amount of African Americans who are going to vote for a Republican candidate … who happens to be Trump,” Parson said.
Although Parson’s lawsuit failed, his goal of eliminating the oath succeeded on Feb. 5, when the Republican Party had a change of heart and the State Board of Elections agreed to remove it. The board did so despite having already sent out absentee ballots containing the oath.
Parson said that he believed that his lawsuit and the ensuing media’s coverage played a role in the GOP’s reversal.
“I think the media changed [their mind]. I am a media person. They really looked into the adverse effects of me going public,” he said.
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Some, like Parson, would argue that justice has been served. Others disagree – including, ironically, people who also have been consistently opposed to the loyalty oath requirement.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, for example, objected to requiring voters to sign the Republican pledge. But once some ballots went out that way, the oath should have been used in the entire election, the group said.
“Did we like that the Republican Party was requiring an affirmation? No. Was it legal? Yes. You know they have those associational rights. But to change the rules of the election after the election has begun is just unfair to voters,” Hope Amezquita, staff attorney and legislative counsel for the ACLU of Virginia, said Tuesday in an interview.
Bill Farrar, the group’s director of public policy and communications, clarified Amezquita’s statement in an email. He said, “The oath certainly could have discouraged some registered voters from participating. However, now we have a situation in which thousands of people requested and received absentee ballots with instructions for the oath. Some may already have declined to vote on that basis, and now the rules have changed.”
He concluded, “We believe leaving the oath intact would have been a more fair and consistent course for the RPV and the state Board of Elections.”
Parson, the pastor and founder of the Richmond Christian Center, disagreed.
“We have a constitutional right to vote. We should be able to vote for whoever we want to vote for, and not a party. Certainly, as a church, the church can’t endorse a political party, but we can encourage people to vote. It’s important to us as Christians,” he said.
The ACLU estimates that 1,400 people returned absentee ballots after having signed the “I am a Republican” oath. It is impossible to say how many more people will now vote in the primary as a result of the oath’s removal.
That didn’t keep Parson from speculating: “The Republicans are going to get more percentage of votes than they have in a number of years … That’s positive for the Republican Party because the most important thing that this country needs is that the next president of the United States to not be a Democrat.”