Judge refuses to block Virginia GOP primary loyalty pledge

(AP Photo/Lance Iversen) (Copyright by WSLS - All rights reserved)

RICHMOND (AP) - Donald Trump supporters have lost the first round in their battle to prevent the Republican Party from requiring voters to sign a statement of GOP affiliation before casting ballots in Virginia's presidential primary.

U.S. District Judge Hannah M. Lauck refused Thursday to issue a preliminary injunction blocking the plan, clearing the way for Virginia election officials to finish mailing absentee ballots by Saturday's deadline.

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As it now stands, Virginians voting in person in the March 1 GOP primary also will have to complete a form stating: "My signature below indicates that I am a Republican." Three black pastors who support Trump claim in a lawsuit that the "loyalty oath" violates their civil and free-speech rights.

Those claims remain to be decided, although time is running short. No trial date has been scheduled.

In a four-page order denying the request for a preliminary injunction, Lauck said the plaintiffs at this early stage have failed to show a likelihood of success on the merits of their constitutional claims. However, she said the case "raises matters of significant concern" about the Virginia State Board of Elections' duties to avoid voter confusion and run an orderly election.

The plaintiffs argue that most black voters would refuse to sign the statement, and those that do would face a backlash in their communities. They also contend that confusion or disputes over the statement would result in long lines at the polls, further deterring people from voting.

Lauck said she would issue an opinion further explaining her reasons for denying the preliminary injunction soon.

Chester Smith, attorney for the plaintiffs, said his clients still hope to block use of the statement for in-person voting.

"My clients feel very strongly about this," he said. "They anticipated there would be obstacles. We intend to press on."

Jack Wilson, attorney for the state GOP, said he was pleased with the judge's decision.

"The party's statement was never intended to focus on any one candidate or campaign," he said. "We only wanted to make sure that Republicans vote in the Republican primary.

Trump is not involved in the lawsuit, but he has criticized the Virginia GOP's pledge requirement, arguing that it would drive away new Republican voters.

Virginia does not register voters by party, and taxpayer-funded primaries like the one scheduled for March are open to all registered voters. However, the elections board says the statement of affiliation requested by the state GOP is legal and in keeping with the party's First Amendment free-association rights.

Virginia Republicans proposed voter pledges for the 2008 and 2012 primaries but dropped them before those elections. In 2000, voters in the GOP presidential primary completed a form stating: "I, the undersigned, state that I do not intend to participate in the nomination process of any party other than the Republican Party."

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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