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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.

So imagine the surprise of some Democrats in Arlington last weekend when they arrived at a party caucus to select school board candidates and found themselves confronted with... a loyalty pledge.

"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."

By Marc Fisher |  May 6, 2008; 7:21 AM ET
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Interesting that this is the first time I have heard of this.

When the Republicans tried this it was on television during every newscast and plastered across the front page of every major paper in the area.

When the Democrats try this it is not reported until you put it in your blog. (Didn't you get the memo? You were supposed to bury this.)

And the press stands on their little soap boxes and swears they are unbiased. HA! This is proof that your claims to be unbiased are lies.

And we all need to take ANYTHING you "gentlemen and ladies" of the press say with the proverbial grain of salt, i.e., you must be lying again because we see your lips moving.

Posted by: DC Voter | May 6, 2008 8:50 AM

I think DC Voter has it all wrong. The reason it made the press for the Republican primaries/conventions was that it would have applied to the presidential primary and a larger number of voters. I love how everything is a liberal media bias in their Quixotian world.

Posted by: Steve | May 6, 2008 9:12 AM

I'm not sure that the pledge is as bad as it might seem. The sticking point seems to be this clause: "...I do not intend to support, endorse or assist any candidate who is opposed to a Democratic nominee or endorsee in the ensuing election."

If I'm reading it correctly, the signer is not promising to support the Democratic candidate in the election, no matter who it is; he's just promising that he's not coming into the Democratic party to vote for a candidate he has no intention of supporting any further - presumably, one he sees as the weakest primary candidate in the field.

Now, from what I understand, most polling shows that voters don't generally cross party lines to monkey around with other parties' nomination processes. But I'm not sure that there's anything wrong with asking primary voters to promise that they're not doing so before allowing them to vote in primaries.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | May 6, 2008 9:15 AM

Shannon is lying that she has always voted. The pledge is not new. I've signed it for every caucus held in the last 11 years since I moved to Arlington. But it's only for caucuses, not full primaries open to all voters. So this must have been Shannon's first Dem caucus. It's hardly new.

Posted by: Arlington Gay | May 6, 2008 9:25 AM

Loyalty? Is there any other party to vote for? Ridiculous. The GoP is a looking more and more like a dinosaur. Just a matter of time.

Posted by: Donny | May 6, 2008 9:29 AM

That's ironic... political parties expecting integrity from voters.

Posted by: Ken Mehlman | May 6, 2008 9:32 AM

I have lived in Arlington for 20 years. I have voted in every dem primary. I guess I have never voted in a Caucus. The loyalty oath was shoved in my face and I refused to sign it - and walked out. It is offensive. It is a throw back to that which those of us who love peace and justice are opposed to. It is not the Arlington Way (regardless of the fact that it may not be new). Loyalty oaths have cost people their jobs, their lives, their families, and more. They have no place in our society. We should pledge to vote first and foremost for the candidate most qualified for the position - any other criteria - including loyalty to a syndicate - will surely produce inferior candidates.

I have been an Arlington Democrat for 20 years. In one day, I became an Arlington Independent.

Posted by: Robert Cannon | May 6, 2008 9:33 AM

Regarding the voter, she probably had voted in many primaries, but not caucused before. Caucuses are for people willing to go the extra mile for the party. Still, this is a pig-headed tactic. People aren't going to waste their time going to caucuses of the opposite party.

Note to the usual claims of liberal bias, an Arlington school board election is quite different from a statewide primary. One is much bigger news than the other. If you can't see that, then you're... urrrm... biased.


Posted by: Fairlington Blade | May 6, 2008 9:36 AM

Arlington Gay is correct -- that loyalty oath has been a part of every caucus I have participated in over 14 years (and in Arlington that is usually the school board candidate endorsement). I don't like it, but I decided long ago that if I want to participate in Democratic politics on this level, I need to sign it. It's not an election, it's an endorsement process. The wording is pretty innocuous. And I DO intend to support Democratic candidates, after all.

Shannon and Robert Cannon have either not participated in a Democratic caucus in Arlington, or haven't noticed before what they were signing.

Posted by: Another Arlington Dem | May 6, 2008 9:42 AM

I think your post confuses state-sanctioned primaries with this unofficial caucus endorsement. This was not an official election. It was a party function, and asking people to say they're part of the party in order to participate in a party function is not at all unreasonable.

Posted by: Arlington Dem | May 6, 2008 9:53 AM

I do not believe for one second that the Arlington Democrats are only enforcing this loyalty oath at the direction of the state party. The local Democrats in Arlington have a stranglehold on local governance and are willing to take ugly steps to keep it. Arlington has a one-party system, and that party does whatever it wants.

Posted by: Arlington Independent | May 6, 2008 9:54 AM

I remember that I sometimes had to sign this silly oath when I voted in an Arlington primary. Virginia is a loopy place where sometimes the two major parties have their primaries on different days and other times each juristiction has its primary on a different day. This kept media coverage to a minimum.

I always figured that the Democratic and Republican party leaders did these things to assure that only party loyalists would participate. Looks like it's working.

Posted by: josey23 | May 6, 2008 10:03 AM

Arlington Democrats could, if they wanted to, simply take a vote at one of their monthly meetings, with the official membership endorsing a candidate. Instead, they choose to hold a "meeting" at which any Democrat in Arlington can choose to participate. This year, 4425 Arlington Democrats participated in the event, and fewer than a dozen left the caucus with any objection.

Why should Arlington Democrats be forced to allow Republicans into their meetings to vote? That makes no sense to me.

In a primary, the government tells the losers that they cannot be on the general election ballot at all. In a caucus, all participation is voluntary, and the results strictly advisory. I don't think the Democratic party should be disallowed from deciding amongst themselves and then expressing who they want to have on the School board.

This pledge, taken directly from the Party Plan, was used in the ACDC school caucus in 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, and in the County Board Caucus in 2003, and in every other School Board Caucus since Arlington re-started electing school boards in the mid-1990s. As others have indicated, Margaret Shannon has apparently missed a lot of other votes, forgot that she had signed the pledge before, or is being deliberately untruthful.

By the way, has she also participated in the Arlington Republican caucuses? They also hold "closed" events, but you never hear anyone complaining about that. Maybe those are some more "elections" she has missed. And, the Sierra Club endorsement votes -- has she participated in those? Or are those other missed "elections"?

Posted by: Thesmothete | May 6, 2008 10:50 AM

Hey, Arlington Independent,

It's not the Arlington County Democratic Committee that has a stranglehold on Arlington elected offices. It's the overwhelmingly Democratic voters in the county. ACDC just coordinates the endorsement process.

Even if the GOP or Greens or an Independent get on the ballot for November, the school board election is essentially over. The vast majority of people who vote in Arlington are Democrats. It's not a plot; just a fact of life.

Posted by: Arlington Gay | May 6, 2008 10:56 AM

Marc -

The worst part about it is that, because Arlington is essentially one-party rule across every elected leadership position with neither Republican nor Independent candidates put forward very often any more, the endorsed candidates that come out of the Democratic caucuses are the ones who WILL be elected.

So if you want to have a say in who your school board, county board, etc. leaders will be, the only forum for you to do so is through the Democratic caucuses, despite how you might feel about the ludicrous pledge. So I plug my nose and sign the pledge so that I can have SOME say in who will lead my children's school system and my county. Come election time, I will always vote for whom I believe to be the most qualified candidate, pledge or not.

I will hope that a party that claims to want to be inclusive will reconsider a pledge that, by its very nature, excludes so many by offending the integrity of Democrats, Independents and Republicans alike.

Posted by: Another Arlington Independent | May 6, 2008 10:58 AM

Why should non-Democrats be allowed to participate in a Democratic party nomination at all? Should I get to pick the Republican nominees? Caucuses and primaries are not general elections. There is no right to vote in party nominating events. The party sets the rules.

Posted by: Arl Dem | May 6, 2008 11:01 AM

Arl Dem, we needed to vote in this particular caucus because all of the candidates seeking the endorsement agreed to bow out should they lose. This is the only real opportunity for members of the public, whom the board will serve, to have a voice in choosing them. Regardless of one's party affiliation, this vote was important. And the oath presents another shining example of why it's called the People's Republic of Arlington.

Posted by: Arlingtoniana | May 6, 2008 11:28 AM

In the last 5 years, over 22 Republicans, Greens and independents have run for local office in Arlington. One of them was even elected to office. It is not true that the Democrats are guaranteed to win every office. However, as a Democrat, I think we should be allowed to organize to try to win every office.

Posted by: Thesmothete | May 6, 2008 11:28 AM

I will hope that a party that claims to want to be inclusive will reconsider a pledge that, by its very nature, excludes so many by offending the integrity of Democrats, Independents and Republicans alike.

You're misunderstanding the very nature of the Democratic Caucus. It's not a primary where everyone gets to choose which party to vote for. That's why it's not on a Tuesday at every polling place. It's ACDC choosing an endorsement.

See my previous post for why Arlington is, indeed, a 1 party system. Because Democratic voters keep electing endorsed Democrats. When the people who vote are overwhelmingly Democrats, it's not undemocratic to elect all Democrats.

Posted by: Arlington Gay | May 6, 2008 11:33 AM

All Hail, the People's Republic of Arlington County!! I will never understand why people have such loyalty to a particular party. It's like buying a Hallmark card...the words are already written for you. People who are loyal to one party are dangerous - they cannot think for themselves. Rather, they allow a party to control what they are to believe. Isn't party loyalty a form of brainwashing? Where are the strong independent thinkers anymore. Why can't people just decide on a candidate based on his qualifications and ideals versus what a party tells them they are suppose to think. Be strong - Be independent.

Posted by: Arl | May 6, 2008 12:05 PM

This Fisher commentary did not appear in the print edition we received. We saw no mention of the important caucus in the Post to inform citizens to vote; we saw no mention of the results.
The Arlington papers are distributed in only in the northern part of the county, so a large percentage of the county has no source of county news other than the Post. Most folks in South Arlington are most likely still not aware that the school board election was conducted last week.

Posted by: Les B. | May 6, 2008 12:30 PM

Thesmothete, it's true there was ONE Republican elected to the county board but it should be noted that was in a special election with a very low turnout. He was elected in the spring or summer, but then the same Dem that lost in the special election won the general election in November. So it was a very brief GOP victory.

The Dems don't just win, they often win all (or nearly all) districts. I've always wondered how GOP candidates can even raise money in Arlington. They aren't the far-right religious GOP of Rova, but as long as the GOP is hijacked, they have little chance in Arlington.

Posted by: Arlington Gay | May 6, 2008 1:21 PM

The problem is that, by state law, School Board elections are supposed to be non-partisan (i.e. political parties do not nominate the candidates). To me, this is a sensible law, since School Board elections should not be about the usual partisan issues, and I do not like the idea of budding pols using the School Board as stepping stone to "higher" office. The Arlington County Democratic Committee ("ACDC")gets around this prohibition by "endorsing" candidates and - importantly - requiring anyone seeking the party endorsement to agree in advance not to run in the general election if they don't garner the "endorsement." This means that process which produces the endorsement is the equivalent of a primary or caucus and, in overwhelmingly Democratic Arlington, can essentially determine the election.

While the process likely is technically in compliance with the law, it really turns the School Board election into an entry-level election, discouraging qualified people who are not interested in party politics from running and giving those heavily involved in the Arlington Democratic party a signficant advantage. The ACDC could put a stop to this either by eliminating the "if I don't win the endorsement I won't run" requirement or simply cancelling the endorsement process altogether, but I doubt it will.

Posted by: killer aardvark | May 6, 2008 1:55 PM

It is true that the Democratic party -- whose main purpose is to elect as many Democrats as possible to public office, is unlikely to unilaterally disarm. I don't really see this as a failing.

While the Republican and independent posters here would of course love that, we see no reason to let non Democrats win, just for the sake of it. If you don't like the Democrats winning, then run yourself in November, and be a better candidate.

Also, Arlington Gay is wrong. Republican Dave Foster beat the Democratic-endorsed candidate in the 2003 general election, having beat the Democratic-endorsed candidate in the 1999 general election. It is also true that Republican Mike Lane won in a 1999 special election, and then lost by less than 2% of the vote in the following general election.

So, bravo Arlington Democrats! Congratulations for continuing to provide high-quality candidates that keep winning and winning in the most educated County in the Nation.

Posted by: Thesmothete | May 6, 2008 3:46 PM

I am a Republican who lives in Arlington and who participated in last weekend's School Board Caucus. I enouraged many of my GOP and Independent friends to participate as well, and they did.

We did not participate to "make mischief" or be "devilish" but because we care about the people who are making decisions about our kids schools. We were not about to let anyone disenfranchise us because of a meaningless piece of paper.

It is disconcerting to me (as well as my Democrat wife and friends) that school board elections are considered partisan affairs. Signing a loyalty pledge is not a sign of party loyalty but of someone's tremendous insecurity.

Posted by: Arlington GOP voter | May 6, 2008 9:02 PM

If you don't want to sign the pledge, don't vote in the caucus. I'm a Democrat and I don't have any problem signing as I would not vote for a Republican anyway. The year that I wanted to vote for the independent candidate, I didn't sign the pledge or vote in the caucus.

Posted by: eyre | May 6, 2008 9:23 PM

Thesmothete, I didn't include Foster because that was 5 years ago, not recent. Then again, Mike Lane isn't all that recent either. When Ed Fendley won, he won every single district including his opponents home districts. Last year, when Foster opted not to run for re-election the GOP didn't even field a candidate. So far this year, no GOP, Independent, or Green candidates have filed. Who can complain about all Dems being elected if they run unopposed?

Who ran against foster in 2003? 1999 was a weak campaign and the Dems learned from it, I think. I don't remember who lost in 2003 but the ACDC endorsement isn't a magic bullet. Beating an incumbent is always going to be harder. It would have been interesting to see how Foster would have done against Abbey Raphael last year.

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