Samuel F. Wright

Captain, JAGC, USN (Ret.)
Director, Service Members Law Center
(800) 809-9448, ext. 730
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Virginia-Please Don’t Disenfranchise Military Personnel in Primaries

By Captain Samuel F. Wright, JAGC, USN (Ret.)

7.0—Military Voting Rights

Virginia and most other states are having fiscal difficulties and are looking for ways to save money.  Virginia State Senator Mark Obenshain has proposed to terminate state and local government funding for the process of nominating major party candidates for federal and state office.  He contends that the parties themselves should be required to pay all these costs.  In an e-mail blast to constituents on Jan. 6, 2011, he wrote: 

Ending Subsidies to Political Parties

Virginia is in somewhat unique situation:  we don’t allow voter registration by political party, but we still pay for party primaries.  And the truth is, we pay through the nose, sometimes as much as $20 per voter.

There are perfectly good alternatives.  Parties often choose to nominate via convention or party canvass, or through a “firehouse primary,” in which a limited number of polling places are opened in each locality, usually for fewer hours than in a government-run election.  All of these methods are common, all are relatively affordable—and all are paid for by the political parties themselves. 

If a political party wants a conventional primary, fine—but they can pay for it.  Our localities are burdened enough as it is.  If a party cannot or will not put up that much money, they can always go with a cheaper option.  Our localities can ill afford it—and under my proposal, they won’t have to.

I fundamentally disagree with Senator Obenshain’s contention that firehouse primaries, party canvasses, or party conventions constitute “perfectly good alternatives.”  These alternatives do not serve the 34,447 Virginians serving on active duty in our armed forces, outside the Commonwealth of Virginia.  These service members are paying Virginia state income tax, as well as federal income tax, through withholding from their salaries, no matter where the service of our country has taken them.  If they are to vote at all, it must be by absentee ballot, and absentee voting is not an option in a convention, canvass, or firehouse primary.  Instead of going to more of these “cheaper options,” I would like to see Virginia require a conventional primary (including an absentee voting option) for all elections to public office.

I fundamentally disagree with Senator Obenshain’s basic premise that financing the primary is the responsibility of the party, not the government.  The nomination process is an integral part of the election process, just as the regular season and the playoffs are an integral part of determination of the Super Bowl champion.  See Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944), holding that the primary was part of the election and rejecting the argument that the Democratic Party of Texas was a “private association” and could constitutionally determine its own membership rules and exclude African Americans from participation.

This issue is near and dear to my heart.  Almost every year, I attend the Virginia Republican State Convention as a delegate.  I signed up to attend and planned to attend the convention in May 2001, but the Navy Reserve deployed me to Bahrain a few days before the convention, so I had to miss it. 

In a speech to the House of Commons on Aug. 20, 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said:  “The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge of mortal danger, are turning the tide of world war by their prowess and their devotion.  Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

I respectfully submit that the Prime Minister’s eloquent words about the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain apply equally to the men and women of the United States armed forces today, in the Global War on Terrorism.  Active duty, Reserve, and National Guard personnel total less than ¾ of 1% of our nation’s population.  Were it not for the sacrifices of these few (including the 34,447 Virginians on active duty), none of us would have the opportunity to vote in free elections.  Service members deserve above all others to exercise the right to vote in primary as well as general elections.