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Tavorise Marks joins 4th District primary voter suppression lawsuit

"Jennifer McClellan for Congress" and "Morrissey for Senate: A Fighter for the People" signs on the sidewalk as voters line up around Dogtown Dance Theatre.
Scott Elmquist
VPM News
Tens of thousands of Democratic voters lined up throughout Virginia's 4th to vote in the Dec. 20 party-run primary.

Tavorise K. Marks, one of the Democratic primary candidates for Virginia’s 4th Congressional District special election, has joined a lawsuit against the governor, state election officials and Democratic Party of Virginia leadership. Plaintiffs allege voter suppression in December’s firehouse primary in the race to fill the late Rep. Donald McEachin's seat in Congress.

Attorney Paul Goldman of Richmond — a Democratic politician who ran an unsuccessful campaign to be the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor in 2021 — originally filed suit on Dec. 16 in the federal U.S. District a for the Eastern District of Virginia. In court documents Goldman, who would have needed “an hour roundtrip by public transportation" in order to vote on Dec. 20, alleges several violations of the Virginia Code, the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.

The initial lawsuit later clarified its alleged violations and added six more plaintiffs (Marks, Tamia Douglas, Tina McCray, Jamale Pope, Julie Pope and Richard Walker) on Dec. 21 — while votes were still being counted in Virginia’s 4th. Days before the primary, Marks said he planned to file suit against state party leadership.

Overall, the suit alleges violations from the following state officials: Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Commissioner of Elections Susan Beals and all five members of the Virginia State Board of Elections — Chairperson Robert Brink, Vice-Chair John O'Bannon, Secretary Georgia Alvis Long, Donald Merricks and Angela Chiang. Also named in the suit are the Democratic Party of Virginia, state Democratic Chairwoman Susan Swecker and Alexsis Rodgers, who led the 4th Congressional District Democratic Committees.

Plaintiffs are seeking, among other remedies, "the Virginia Board of Elections ... ensure the DPVA conduct a constitutionally valid nomination process to pick the Democratic nominee for the Special Election."

Following McEachin’s Nov. 28 death, Youngkin issued a writ of election on Dec. 12 directing state party officials to conduct their own primaries and certify a nominee by 5 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 23.

Hank Chambers, a University of Richmond law professor, told VPM News the state will likely argue there was an urgent need to fill the seat that compressed the timeline: “The question the judge is going to have to ask is, well, ‘Were too many corners cut? Were too many folks unable to vote?’”

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan won the Dec. 20 Democratic primary, beating out state Sen. Joe Morrissey, Marks and former Del. Joseph Preston. Approximately 28,000 voters flocked to eight sites in the 4th District to vote, a firehouse primary record for Virginia Democrats.

Republican candidate Leon Benjamin Sr. was selected over retired VSP trooper Dale Sturdifen during a five-hour party canvass in Colonial Heights on Dec. 17. Benjamin previously lost to incumbent McEachin in November’s general election.

The 4th District’s special election between McClellan and Benjamin is set for Feb. 21, though early voting is ongoing.

The 4th District includes all or part of Brunswick, Charles City, Dinwiddie, Greensville, Prince George, Surry, Sussex, Chesterfield, Henrico and Southampton counties. It also includes the cities of Colonial Heights, Emporia, Hopewell, Petersburg and Richmond.

An expedited hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18, in Richmond. District Judge Roderick C. Young will preside.

Patrick Larsen contributed reporting.

Dawnthea M. Price Lisco (dawn-TAY-uh, she/her) is the managing editor at VPM News.
Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.