Arlington Dems Told To Sign Loyalty Oath
Last fall, when Virginia's Republican Party proposed to require voters in its presidential primary to sign a pledge promising that they would support the party's nominee, Democrats called the maneuver a "slap in the face to voters."
Bruised by criticism from Democrats, independents and Republicans alike, the GOP backed off--there would be no loyalty oath.
"For the first time in my 42 years as a voter I have failed to vote in an election," says Margaret Shannon, a research historian who lives in Arlington, "not because I forgot, but because I walked out rather than violate my conscience."
Shannon was appalled that her party would ask her to sign this statement: "I certify that I am a resident of and registered to vote in Arlington County, Virginia; I am a Democrat; I believe in the principles of the Democratic Party; and I do not intend to support, endorse or assist any candidate who is opposed to a Democratic nominee or endorsee in the ensuing election."
Shannon confronted party officials and says she was told that the pledge had been blessed by a court ruling. But Shannon made it clear that she would have no part of that kind of coercive tactic--even if it is wholly unenforceable. "It certainly is not legal," she says, "if for no other reason that without the force of sanction for failing to abide by the oath, it is meaningless. Do they plan to breach the sanctity and secrecy of the ballot box?! Loyalty oaths went out with Sen. McCarthy, the Nazi Party, and the Alabama voter application form that were four pages long to intimidate and threaten African-Americans!"
But Arlington Democratic Committee chairman Peter Rousselot tells me that the loyalty pledge has been part of the caucus process for many years, and is in fact mandated by the state party. "We're asking people as a matter of conscience to make this public statement of intent," he says. Every year, Rousselot says, some Democrats see the pledge and recoil, arguing that it is unfair and inappropriate. But, as a party policy statement puts it, "Prospective voters who are uncomfortable with the pledge need not participate in our endorsement process and are, of course, free to support and vote for whomever they choose in the general election."
Of course, even those who do sign the pledge are equally free to decide later to cross party lines and vote for the Republican or anyone else. The Democrats freely admit that their pledge is legally unenforceable.
But they believe it is a necessary precaution to take against the possibility of Republicans coming to Democratic caucuses to make mischief. "It's a question of philosophy," Rousselot says. And it's a way to discourage some members of the opposing party from joining a Democratic caucus just to be devilish.
This whole issue arises solely because Virginia is one of 20 states in which there is no party registration. Unlike another 20 states and the District, where you must register as a party member to take part in primary votes, Virginia lets voters pick whichever primary they want to participate in each year, as long as you limit yourself to one party's primary. No party wants mischief-makers from the opposing side to jump into their primaries and vote against that party's interests, so some smarties at party headquarters concocted this loyalty oath idea.
In Virginia, open primaries have helped the Democrats tack toward the center and cultivate candidates such as Mark Warner, Tim Kaine and Jim Webb who have strong appeal to the independents who tend to be the decision-makers in the state's elections. But Virginia Republicans have tended in recent years to avoid primaries, choosing instead to select their nominees at conventions where hard core conservatives dominate. The result is a string of candidates who are popular within the party's base, but weak at winning over independents and Democrats disillusioned with their own party.
So it's doubly ironic for the Democrats to resort to loyalty oaths, if only at the local level. As John Hager, the chairman of the Virginia Republican party, said after eating crow and scrapping his party's loyalty pledges last fall, ""We have heard the voice of the people," said John H. Hager, the state party chairman. "Our job has to be to build the party. We welcome new people into the party. We want as many people as possible participating if they share our principles and values."
As for Shannon, she'd love to come back and vote in her party's caucuses--but only if they stop trying to get between her conscience and the voting machine. "This has been the single most appalling electoral experience I have ever had," she says, "and I was the staff director of the 1972 Democratic Platform Committee, when we fought over just about everything including non-union lettuce in the sandwiches provided in lunch boxes during debate."
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