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GOP Updates Convention Plans With Less Than Two Weeks to Spare

Republicans sit in tables watching Kirk Cox speak on stage
Republicans in King William County watch Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) speak at an event last week. (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

In a swift reversal, Virginia Republicans will allow observant Jews and other people with religious obligations to vote early in their upcoming May 8 nominating convention for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general.

The party’s top committee also resolved a dispute over how to count convention delegates in a meeting Sunday night. Ballots will be sent to a central site, likely in downtown Richmond, and manually tabulated over the course of up to a week while guarded by commercial security personnel and monitored with video cameras.

Their moves helped resolve key sticking points ahead of a convention that has been fraught with delays and distrust. The party only settled on a “disassembled” convention in March, after a pro-convention faction of the committee won enough votes to proceed with that option over a primary. Tens of thousands of registered delegates are expected to turn out at several dozen voting locations across the state to use ranked-choice voting to select nominees. 

The update rule allowing observant Jews to vote came after a related absentee voting proposal failed to win the supermajority needed to pass last week, sparking outrage from some Republican committee members and politicians.

The Sunday night absentee proposal passed the party’s state central committee without any objections -- a marked change from heated debate during Thursday night’s meeting. It allows registered convention delegates to submit a form indicating they have religious obligations during the convention that prohibit them participating. Those delegates can vote between 3 and 6 p.m. on Friday, May 7 at a location specified by local party officials. 

The party already allows military personnel to vote using a similar process, though Department of Defense policy prohibits soldiers from participating when they are in uniform. Unlike state-run primaries, the party-run convention sets its own rules for participation, voting, and tabulating ballots.

Under the rules approved Sunday, couriers sending the ballots to Richmond are barred from stopping except to refill their gas. When the ballots make it to Richmond, they'll be placed in a locked box and guarded by commercial security personnel, with counting to take place at least 10 hours a day. The process could take up to a week, but more likely a few days, with results announced no later than May 15. 

At least one observer for the campaigns will be allowed to observe the “Australian hand-count method” named after voting procedures in a country where ranked-choice voting has been common for over a century. Potential counting sites including the Richmond Convention Center and the downtown Richmond Marriott Hotel. 

Three gubernatorial candidates -- Glenn Youngkin, Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Midlothian) -- objected to a previous plan, which called for ballots to be tabulated using software they argued was untested. Committee member Steve Albertson, who heads the party’s rule committee, said the three candidates supported the updated method.

Alberston said the committee’s preference was for an independent group to do the counting. The Republican National Committee has offered its help, according to Alberston. The party rejected a proposal to use optical scanners to count ballots, with Albertson warning against any changes to the plan so close to the convention. 

“We really do have to execute starting tomorrow,” Alberston said. “We’re going to be working for two weeks and staff is going to be working for two weeks and we’re going to be putting together teams to conduct that manual count. It’s not as simple as it sounds.”

The party will finalize its procedures at a meeting on May 1. 

Democratic Party of Virginia chair Susan Swecker seized on the messy process in an opinion piece published Saturday in the Roanoke Times.

“For all their talk of ‘election integrity,’ Virginia Republicans’ own process has drawn allegations of rigging and fraud,” Swecker wrote. “We believe that voters—not a select group of party insiders—should be the ones choosing the leaders that will represent them.”