Late last month, I wrote about a case in Dane County, Wisconsin, that had all the earmarks of political prosecution -- that is, a dissenter who was making waves with the political establishment was accused of a crime in an effort to derail his activism. In that case, the charges proved to be unfounded and were dropped, but only after 17 months of dragging the activist through the courts.
Now another case arises in Northern Virginia. Steve Chapman, a conservative Republican who is the first candidate to challenge long-time Delegate Harry Parrish in almost two decades, has been accused of election fraud. According to the Washington Post:
The indictment charges Chapman with election fraud, a felony that carries a maximum 10-year sentence, for making false statements on a voter registration form. Chapman is also charged with illegal voting or knowingly voting although he was not qualified, a misdemeanor. He is scheduled to appear today in Prince William County Circuit Court. The charges do not specify the alleged false statement or say where Chapman voted last fall.According to press reports, Chapman has lived in three different homes over the past several months, two of which are in the 50th House of Delegates district, where he is a candidate.
The allegations seem to suggest that Chapman registered to vote last fall, and then voted in the November election, using a false address. Chapman replies that he has lived in his current voting jurisdiction since September 27 of last year, well before the deadline for changing voter registration in order to be eligible to vote in the general election.
Despite denials from the Parrish camp, this prosecution smacks too much of political motivation. While it is certainly illegal to vote under false pretenses, such prosecutions are rare. Determining the "true" residency of a voter is nearly never investigated, unless the voter himself offers some evidence to the fact, such as telling a pollworker, "I moved last spring but I haven't changed my registration yet."
Legal residency is a fungible concept. George H.W. Bush was elected President as a Texas "resident" while using as his official address a hotel room in Houston. Bill Clinton never owned his own home until after retiring from the presidency, and in fact lived in government-subsidized housing for 20 years.
It is not rare for potential candidates to move into districts shortly before an election campaign begins. There is nothing illegal about that. The Virginia Code says in regard to General Assembly candidates:
Section 24.2-500: In order to qualify as a candidate for any office of the Commonwealth, or of its governmental units, a person must be qualified to vote for and hold that office. In order to hold any office of the Commonwealth or its governmental units, elective by the people, the candidate must have been a resident of the Commonwealth for one year next preceding his election and be qualified to vote for that office.
Section 24.2-519: In order to qualify as a candidate at any primary, a person must be legally qualified to hold the office for which he is a candidate and be qualified to vote in the primary in which he seeks to be a candidate.
Section 24.2-101: "Qualified voter" means a person who is entitled to vote pursuant to the Constitution of Virginia and who is (i) 18 years of age, (ii) a resident of the Commonwealth and of the precinct in which he offers to vote, and (iii) registered to vote. No person who has been convicted of a felony shall be a qualified voter unless his civil rights have been restored by the Governor or other appropriate authority. No person adjudicated incapacitated shall be a qualified voter unless his capacity has been reestablished as provided by law.
Section 24.2-424. Change of registered voter's address within the Commonwealth; pilot project.
A. Whenever a registered voter changes his place of residence within the Commonwealth, he shall promptly notify any general registrar of the address of his new residence. Such notice may be made in person, in writing, by return of the voter registration card noting the new address, or on a form approved by the State Board of Elections, which may be electronic. The notice in writing may be provided by mail or by facsimile and shall be signed by the voter unless he is physically unable to sign, in which case his own mark acknowledged by a witness shall be sufficient signature. The State Board is authorized to conduct a pilot program, under which electronic notice may be provided by electronic mail or such other electronic means as may be permitted by the State Board and signed by the voter in a manner consistent with the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (§ 59.1-479 et seq.). The fact that a voter provides an address on a candidate or referendum petition that differs from the address for the voter on the voter registration system shall not be deemed sufficient notice, in and of itself, to change the voter's registration address. Any statements made by any voter applying for transfer are subject to felony penalties for making a false statement pursuant to § 24.2-1016.
B. If the voter has moved within the same county or city, on receipt of the notification, the general registrar for that county or city shall (i) enter the new address on the registration record; (ii) if satisfied that the registered voter has moved into another precinct within the same county or city, transfer the registration of the voter to that precinct; and (iii) issue the voter a new voter registration card. This transfer may be entered in the registration records at any time the registration records are not closed pursuant to § 24.2-416.
A voter can register to vote up to 29 days before an election. That makes him both eligible to vote and eligible to seek office in that jurisdiction. The types of identification necessary to register and to vote are broad, but they include a driver's license, a government-issued photo ID card, or even a utility bill addressed to the voter at his residence.
The Manassas Journal Messenger reported comments from Chapman's attorney, Gil Davis (himself once a candidate for Virginia Attorney General):
"He took all the steps he needed to take; he changed his address, he registered his car, he changed his voter registration," Davis said. "What more could he have done?"I will admit I do not know all the facts in this case. But the charges seem suspicious. They never would have been brought against "Steve Chapman, voter" but are extraordinarily convenient when the alleged perpetrator is "Steve Chapman, primary election candidate." The timing is suspicious, too. In the words of Gil Davis, "The damage is done if he can't clear his name before the election."
Davis went on to tell an anecdote about an anonymous state senator who rented an apartment in Fairfax that he never entered so he could run for the Fairfax seat. The senator was living in Tappahanock, Davis said. Davis claimed such cases are never prosecuted in Virginia.
Is it to harsh to ask the same question posed by one of Chapman's supporters in Prince William County?
"These are the dirty tactics of the good ol' boy network," Supervisor Corey A. Stewart, R-Occoquan, said at Chapman's press conference. Chapman was Stewart's campaign manager in 2003. "I wonder why a man in the twilight of his career would seek to destroy a young man for one more term."Incumbent politicians who face no opposition over a quarter-century begin to think they are both invincible and infallible. That is why it is so vitally important that every election be contested. Complacent politicians are to blame for our flabby, intrusive government. If Harry Parrish is not to blame for the troubles now besetting Steve Chapman, he should be ashamed simply for running unopposed for so long and giving more reason for us to distrust our democratic system and to be cynical about politics in general.