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Federal judge tosses motion to halt 4th District special election

People stand in a line in the December chill near a light-colored brick building
Scott Elmquist
VPM News
Voters in Tuesday's primary stand lined up outside Dogtown Dance Theatre in Richmond's Manchester neighborhood.

Plaintiffs’ attorney argued that state officials and the Democratic Party of Virginia suppressed voters in the Dec. 20 ‘firehouse primary.’

A Richmond federal judge declined Wednesday to halt the upcoming special election in Virginia’s 4th Congressional District for the late Rep. Donald McEachin's seat. The lawsuit was brought by seven residents of Virginia’s 4th — including Tavorise K. Marks, one of the Democratic firehouse primary candidates.

In a court hearing on the motion to pause the February special election, where early voting is ongoing, plaintiffs’ attorney John Janson said the Democratic Party of Virginia bungled the Dec. 20 firehouse primary. Janson argued the party had too few polling places — eight in a congressional district that normally has over 200 voting precincts — and that this increased difficulty for voters amounted to voter suppression.

Marks said he was disappointed in U.S. District Judge Roderick C. Young’s decision. He emphasized that private institutions should not run primary elections.

“[The judge] made it very clear today that neither Democratic Party or Republican parties are government agencies,” he said. “They’re third-party independent private entities and they can do what the hell they want.”

The suit, originally filed in the Eastern District of Virginia on Dec. 16 by Democratic attorney and former DPVA chairperson Paul Goldman, alleged state and party officials engaged in voter suppression through violations of state law, the Virginia and U.S. constitutions and the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

It was refiled Dec. 21 — while votes were still being counted in Virginia’s 4th — to include Marks, Tamia Douglas, Tina McCray, Jamele Pope, Julie Pope and Richard Walker as plaintiffs, all of whom live in the 4th and voted in the Dec. 20 primary.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Commissioner of Elections Susan Beals, all five members of the Virginia State Board of Elections, the Democratic Party of Virginia, state Democratic Chairperson Susan Swecker and Alexsis Rodgers, who led the 4th Congressional District Democratic Committees, were all named as defendants.

Representatives for the governor, the state Board of Elections and the Democratic Party of Virginia all declined to comment. VPM News reached out to Janson for plaintiff comment but did not hear back before publication.

In court filings, the state argued that plaintiffs’ motion “cannot show irreparable harm because their alleged harm, if any, has already occurred and the requested injunction would not prevent it. And the public interest clearly favors avoiding federal judicial intervention during an ongoing state election.”

McEachin, a longtime Virginia politician who was reelected in November against Republican Leon Benjamin, died Nov. 28 due to complications from cancer. On Dec. 12, Youngkin issued a writ of election directing state party officials to conduct their own primaries — a requirement set by current state election law — and certify a nominee by 5 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 23.

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan won the Dec. 20 Democratic primary, beating out state Sen. Joe Morrissey, Marks and former Virginia Del. Joseph Preston. Approximately 28,000 voters flocked to eight sites in the 4th District to vote, a firehouse primary record for Virginia Democrats. (According to DPVA counts, Marks received less than 1% of votes in the historic turnout.)

Republican candidate Leon Benjamin was selected over retired Virginia State Police trooper Dale Sturdifen during a five-hour party canvass in Colonial Heights on Dec. 17. The Republican Party of Virginia was not named in the lawsuit.

The 4th District’s special election between McClellan and Benjamin is set for Feb. 21, and early voting continues through mid-February.

In an interview last week, University of Richmond law professor Hank Chambers told VPM News the state was likely to argue an urgent need to fill McEachin’s seat 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?’”

Virginia’s 4th District covers a vast swath of Central Virginia spanning parts or all of 10 counties and five independent cities. It 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.

Dawnthea M. Price Lisco (dawn-TAY-uh, she/her) is the managing editor at VPM News.
Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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