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Independent Candidates Get More Scrutiny In Virginia

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Only independents are currently required to have their ballot petitions scrutinized.
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Only independents are currently required to have their ballot petitions scrutinized.

Some political activists in Virginia are calling on the General Assembly to close a loophole in election law they say uses ballot petitions to open the door to voter fraud.

Last year, an independent candidate who was trying to get on the ballot for a State Senate race forged a number of signatures and submitted the fake petitions to the local registrar. In the process of certifying the ballot petitions, the registrar noticed some irregularies and sent the case to Alexandria commonwealth's attorney Randy Sengel, who prosecuted the candidate for election fraud.

"This is probably the first case under that statute that we've brought that I can remember," says Sengel.

The reason election fraud is rare might not be because it rarely happens, but because it's rarely caught. While independent candidates receive a high level of scrutiny, partisan candidates do not. Virginia Board of Elections Deputy Secretery Justin Riemer says Democratic and Republican candidates are not required to certify that their ballot petitions are signed by registered voters.

Some registrars offer verification as a courtesy, while others do not.

"The law basically places the certification process in the hands of the political parties," says Sengel.

When Alexandria Democratic Committee Chairman Clark Mercer witnessed ballot petitions being collected without addresses last summer, he tried to file a formal complaint. But when he did, he learned that the ballot petitions were the property of the Republican party, and that there is no way to verify that anyone is checking to see if the voters are legitimate or just a pile of forged signatures.

"I mean I witnessed signatures being collected incorrectly," says Mercer. "I reported it, and I was told, 'that's too bad.' If the party says they are qualifed, then they're qualified."

That means a prosecution like that of the independent candidate last year could only happen to partisan candidates if their own parties turn them in. That's why some observers are calling for the upcoming General Assembly to take action, and force Republicans and Democrats to endure the same scrutiny currently aimed at independent candidates.

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