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Richmond Candidates Face Challenges Running for Office in the Age of COVID-19

A screenshot from a recent campaign video Richmond City Council candidate Amy Wentz posted to her Facebook page.
A screenshot from a recent campaign video Richmond City Council candidate Amy Wentz posted to her Facebook page. (Courtesy of Amy Wentz)

Progressive organizer Allan-Charles Chipman started planning his run for the 6th District Richmond City Council seat back in March. Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit. 

Now he’s not sure he can gather the 125 voter signatures he’ll need to actually appear on the ballot.

“As a candidate, I kind of have a hard choice,” Chipman said. “I should not have to choose between exercising my constitutional right to run, versus complying with the law and not endangering my community.”

Chipman and other candidates for local office in Virginia are required to submit their qualifying signatures by June 9 to get their name on the ballot. While meeting the signature requirement is not usually a big barrier, the signatures will be due one day before Governor Ralph Northam’s “stay-at-home” order ends. Several political candidates in Richmond tell VPM that meeting the requirement will be all but impossible unless the state creates an alternative to in-person signature collecting.

Candidates running for Mayor have it even harder than those running for City Council. They need 50 voter signatures from each of the nine political districts in Richmond. 

Tracey McLean, a small business owner who’s running for mayor, said she has tried to think of some creative ways to go door-knocking for signatures, but even then she runs the risk of turning off potential voters.

“I think you also will be looked at in a different light. Some people might be like ‘Oh, you're risking my health,’” McLean said. “So that’s not something you want to do.”

One of McClean’s competitors, lawyer and anti-Navy Hill activist Justin Griffin, said he only has about half the signatures he needs. 

“It’s a matter of public health and we should be adapting to that and figuring out ways to do this while maintaining ballot access and keeping everybody as healthy as possible,” he said.

Griffin and other potential candidates want the state to accept e-signatures or, at the very least, extend the filing deadline past when the stay-at-home order ends. 

Ballot access during the coronavirus pandemic isn’t just a problem here in Virginia. 

The Massachusetts Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of three candidates who asked for a deadline extension and a 50 percent reduction in how many signatures are needed to qualify. In Michigan, a U.S. District Court judge also extended that state’s signature deadline and forced the state to accept e-signatures. In Virginia, state law requires that all ballot petitions are witnessed, something usually done by the person collecting the signatures. 

In all, more than a dozen states have made changes to their candidate filing process in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Chipman said he plans to lobby state lawmakers for a fix. But if that doesn’t work, he plans to file a court petition against the Virginia Department of Elections.

“I think the Virginia Department of Elections understands [the issue], but there's nothing they can do without a court order,” Chipman said. “So this might be like a way to give a solution that they can kind of get behind.”

The Virginia Department of Elections refused to comment when VPM asked if they’re working on alternatives to qualify for the ballot. Governor Ralph Northam has not issued any guidance to local candidates running in November. 

A similar petition was filed by a Republican candidate running in the primary to challenge U.S. Senator Mark Warner. Omari Faulkner filed a petition in Richmond Circuit Court asking for a smaller number of signatures to be required to qualify for the primary.

Judge W. Reilley Marchant ruled in Faulkner’s favor saying the coronavirus pandemic made the current requirement unconstitutionally burdensome. Neither the Virginia Department of Elections or the Attorney General’s office challenged Faulkner’s claims.

Even for candidates that already have the signatures they need to be on the ballot, the coronavirus pandemic has changed campaigning dramatically, in ways a court order can’t fix. 

Amy Wentz, who is running for Richmond City Council’s 8th District seat, already submitted her qualifying signatures, but she’s had to scramble to create a strategy for reaching voters online.

“This was the month that we were supposed to start knocking on doors and just having some one on one time with voters where I could talk about my platform and just try to get my face out there as much as possible,” Wentz said.

Now, the six town halls she was supposed to hold in-person are going digital. Wentz has also started an online video series to share details about her platform with potential voters.

Other candidates like Justin Griffin are holding virtual meet and greets, where Richmonders can schedule a time to call him or do a video conference.

Griffin said he thinks candidates will have to be creative in their outreach, even after the stay-at-home order is lifted.

“I think people are going to be wary of opening their doors and interacting with strangers, congregating in large places for a little while,” he said. “And it'll be because people want to play it safe and they want to do the right thing.”

But for now, Griffin says he’ll need state officials to intervene if he hopes to qualify for the ballot by June.