Court strikes down residency restrictions on petition circulators

scales-of-justice2A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on Wednesday struck down a Virginia law imposing a state residency requirement on persons who petition for third-party presidential candidates to appear on the general election ballot.  The court’s ruling affirms a lower court decision issued last July finding that the statute violates the First Amendment.

“Petitioning on behalf of a presidential candidate is an exercise of political speech protected by the First Amendment,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg.  “We are pleased the court found that the state had no basis for restricting this right to people who live in Virginia. The court recognized that the state’s prohibition on non-residents petitioning in Virginia reduces the total amount of political speech in the state, and voters are the worse off for it.”

The ACLU represents the Libertarian Party of Virginia and Darryl Bonner, a non-Virginia resident who often circulates petitions on behalf of Libertarian Party candidates in other states.

Virginia Code Section 24.2-543 requires “non-party” presidential candidates who wish to be listed on a general election ballot to gather at least 400 signatures from each congressional district and a total of 10,000 from the entire state.   Individuals are considered to be non-party candidates if they or the organization they represent received less than 10 percent of the total vote cast in either of the two preceding statewide elections.  The signatures must be witnessed by state residents.

A similar issue arose during the 2012 Republican primaries when presidential hopeful Rick Perry challenged a related Virginia law imposing state residency requirements on individuals who circulate petitions for presidential primary candidates.  In that case, a federal judge said that Perry had filed his lawsuit too late to expect a court remedy, but also opined that the residency restrictions were likely unconstitutional.

“This opinion does not specifically deal with the residency requirement for candidates seeking a place on the presidential primary ballot, as in the Rick Perry case, but the same principles apply,” said Glenberg.  “We hope that as a result of this decision, the State Board of Elections will cease enforcement of that provision as well.”

The Court of Appeals opinion can be found at https://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/201305294thCircuitOpinionLibertarianCase.pdf.

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