Wednesday, November 28, 2007

About That 'Loyalty Oath'

There have been mumblings and murmurings about a Republican "loyalty oath" that will be part of the process of voting in the February 12, 2008, presidential primary in Virginia. According to news reports (AP via Washington Post):

Voters in Virginia's Feb. 12 Republican presidential primary will have to sign an oath swearing loyalty to the eventual GOP ticket. But there is no way to enforce it, because a voter's actions in a booth are secret.

The State Board of Elections has approved a state Republican Party request that all who apply for a GOP primary ballot vow in writing to vote for the Republican presidential nominee next fall.

Voters in Virginia do not register by party. Since the mid-1990s, the state's Republicans have fretted that Democrats might meddle in their primaries, which are open to all registered voters.

The term "loyalty oath" elicits all sorts of bad memories of the Truman administration and Joseph McCarthy, the Smith Act and sedition trials. What the Republican Party of Virginia is asking for is far different, however.

As one of my correspondents explains,
It's a statement of intent, that at the moment you participate in the Republican nomination method, it is your intent to support the Republican nominee.
The actual language of the "oath" is fairly simple, and it is similar to statements routinely required of participants in intraparty elections (such as, for instance, mass meetings to select a unit committee chairman):
I, the undersigned, pledge that I intend to support the nominee of the Republican Party for President.
That means that, if the Republican Party ends up nominating Hillary Clinton or John Edwards for President on a "national unity" ticket (dream on, Sam Waterston), the voter can choose to withhold his or her support for that candidate on Election Day in November, despite the pledge proffered on February 12.

What bothers me about the "oath" is its lack of necessity.

The ostensible reason for requiring this pledge is a fear that Democrats will cross over and vote in the Republican primary, interfering in the integrity of the candidate selection process and violating the Republican party's freedom to define itself and its right of association.

I am all for organizations choosing to define themselves and choosing whom can participate in their activities. (I was part of a gay organization that sided with the Boy Scouts in their litigation to preserve their right to exclude openly gay scoutmasters and other employees from their ranks, for instance. We argued that a Supreme Court decision to deny the Boy Scouts their freedom of association would ultimately harm gay and lesbian organizations that wish to retain their own membership standards and preserve the integrity of their vision through exclusionary policies.)

The practical problem here, however, is that, on February 12, there will also be a Democratic presidential primary in Virginia. That is, we will have a "dual primary" in Virginia.

Why would Democrats, however mischievous, decide to vote in the Republican primary and forgo the opportunity to vote in their own party's primary on the same day?

Is it really likely that a supporter of Dennis Kucinich, for instance, will give up his chance to vote for the diminutive Ohio congressman and instead vote for, say, Tom Tancredo?

On primary election day, voters arriving at their polling place will request either a Democratic or a Republican ballot. Election officials will be instructed to ask Republican voters to sign the pledge but not to perform the same procedure for Democratic voters. This may cause confusion among voters and, sadly, among some election officials, too. (I am confident that Charlottesville election officials will be able to bear this burden professionally and competently.)

All this might be moot by February 5, of course, since that "super Tuesday" is likely to deliver the presidential nominees of both parties, and few voters will care enough to go to the polls a week later.

For the record, here are documents from the Republican Party of Virginia that were delivered to the State Board of Elections, requesting that the SBE implement the RPV rule on primary election day:

Let me offer an alternative "oath" for voters on primary day.

Instead of pledging loyalty to a party or ticket, how about pledging something like this: "I, the undersigned, pledge that I intend to support only those candidates who will uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States"?

That way, the vast majority of primary voters will be able to stay home on Election Day in November.


James Young said...

You're probably right about the practicalities, Rick. And I like your punch line.

While that should be the standard, it sadly won't be. And if it were, we'd have no one for whom to vote at all.

D.J. McGuire said...

There is a possibility that the Republican nominee will not be settled by Feb. 5, leaving open the chance of Democratic shenanigans (I suspect the Dem nominee will be a done deal by then), and there has been a history of Dems fouling up local GOP primaries.

However, to get the state Dems to organize enough to influence a Commonwealth-wide primary is highly unlikely, so like you, I still doubt the necessity of this thing.

What we need are closed primaries and party registration.