Virginia scraps loyalty oath–again–and for the wrong reasons

Cooler political heads have prevailed in Virginia, where a loyalty oath proposed for the March 6, 2012 Republican presidential primary has been sent to the junk heap. So, what was that all about, anyway?

This round [we’ll talk about previous attempts later] started in December 2011, when—fearing crossover into their open primary by devilish Democrats—leaders of Virginia’s Republican party thought it would be a good idea to demand loyalty from primary voters. So, they created—and both Virginia’s Republican Central Committee and the Board of Elections approved—the following non-binding statement, which was to be signed by anyone requesting a Republican ballot for the primary:

“I, the undersigned, pledge that I intend to support the nominee of the Republican Party for president.”

The plan was to post a notice about the required oath at all polling places and to send it out with all absentee ballots. Anyone who refused to sign the pledge would not be allowed to vote.

It didn’t fly. Even Virginia’s Republican Governor Bob McDonnell thought it was a bad idea—but not, perhaps, for the most noble of reasons. McDonnell’s objections were mostly political: He called the oath unenforceable and “unappealing at a time when the GOP is trying to win over voters in a state both parties consider a political battleground.”

Another Virginia politician actually noticed a tinge of politically hypocrisy in the oath. “Virginia’s Republican leadership wants to mandate a loyalty oath when Virginia’s Republican officials are in court fighting the Obamacare mandate?” Virginia state delegate Bob Marshall said in a press release. “This sends the wrong message.”

Marshall also pointed out that, ironically, the oath would exclude Virginia resident Newt Gingrich from voting in the primary, as he had previously stated that he could not support Ron Paul if Paul got the Republican nomination.

Then, the American Civil Liberties Union jumped in, threatening to sue the GOP unless the oath requirement was rescinded. According to the ACLU:

The ACLU respects the associational rights of political parties to establish their own rules for membership and participation, but this is a primary organized, operated and funded by the government. The government cannot require voters to pledge support for a particular candidate.

… The pledge requirement places severe burdens on Republican voters. Some voters who are bona fide Republicans may yet find it impossible to state, in advance, that they will agree to vote for a nominee other than the candidate they support. Voters who do not feel that they can make this promise in good faith will be deterred from exercising their right to vote in the Republican primary. Additionally, some Republican voters who do intend to support the eventual nominee but value the secret ballot may not wish to proclaim their intentions publicly by signing a loyalty oath.

Interestingly, the ACLU also noted that a loyalty oath could be acceptable if a party chose its nominee via state caucuses or a convention.

In the end, after a last-minute scramble to delete it from absentee-ballot mailings, this year’s oath died.

But this year’s debacle was not the first time Virginia had attempted to impose a loyalty oath.  In 1995, for example, Virginia’s  GOP required a pledge to support the party’s eventual nominee in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors primary race, leading to mayhem at the polls with party officials trying to bar people from voting if they didn’t sign the pledge.

In the 2000 Virginia GOP presidential primary, voters were required to sign a pledge reading, “I, the undersigned, state that I do not intend to participate in the nomination process of any other party than the Republican Party.” Also, in 2008, Virginia Republicans initially planned to include a loyalty pledge in the presidential primary, but then decided to scrap the idea amid fears by some in the party that the requirement might alienate some independent voters from the GOP cause. [Another wrong reason for doing the right thing.]

The Virginia GOP’s recurring love affair with loyalty oaths is only one contemporary example of this phenomenon. Loyalty oaths have been in and out of vogue since the American Revolution, and both parties have used them. While Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s loyalty rampage in the 1950s was among the most egregious, we need to remember that the idea of forced fealty has a long and ugly history in America. These things have many lives, and they’ll undoubtedly rise from the dead again.