The Democratic Party of Virginia sued state elections officials Monday amid allegations that fraudulent signatures gathered by a Republican congressman helped get an independent candidate on a congressional ballot as a spoiler.
The campaign of Rep. Scott Taylor, R-2nd, helped former Democratic candidate Shaun Brown gather the 1,000 signatures necessary for her to get on the Nov. 6 ballot as an independent. Elaine Luria is the Democratic nominee.
But following news reports all month about voters who said their names were forged in the petitions signed by Taylor's staff - or that the name of a dead relative appeared on a petition - the Democrats filed suit in Richmond Circuit Court against the Department of Elections and State Board of Elections to get Brown removed from the ballot unless a thorough investigation proves she indeed qualified for the ballot.
Evidence shows "the fraud was far from isolated and instead permeates" Brown's petitions, according to the lawsuit, filed by Democratic law firm Perkins Coie.
The deadline for local jurisdictions to print ballots is Sept. 21.
The Roanoke commonwealth's attorney has been appointed as a special prosecutor to investigate whether laws were broken in the signature gathering process.
Taylor, after initially saying he looked into the allegations and found no one on his staff did anything wrong, said he had severed ties with Rob Catron, his campaign consultant. The consultant is a high-level position in a campaign, generally working on strategy and messaging and sometimes overseeing campaign staff.
Local registrars in the Virginia Beach-based congressional district found 1,030 of the more than 2,100 signatures Brown submitted were valid, and the Department of Elections qualified her for the ballot, according to the lawsuit.
But 35 people have since signed affidavits saying their names or that of a relative were forged, the lawsuit alleges. Handwriting on some of the forged signatures is strikingly similar to other signatures, it says. The 35 signatures appear on sheets gathered by at last three different people with ties to Taylor, the lawsuit says, and the Democrats ask that more than 500 signatures validated by Taylor staff be invalidated.
At least 28 of the 35 signatures were used by elections officials to qualify Brown for the ballot, the lawsuit said. And more people contacted the Democratic Party saying their names were forged, but they didn't want to sign an affidavit because of the publicity they would receive.
Additionally, many of the signatures gathered by Brown have invalid addresses and Brown failed to correctly state her own address and changed her address on forms, the lawsuit said. One address Brown listed in the petitions on Campus Drive in Virginia Beach appears not to exist.
The people who circulated petitions signed an affidavit saying they "personally witnessed" each of the signatures on the petition sheets. Anyone who falsely signs a petition could face a felony carrying up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500.
"All of these safeguards are meant to ensure that only those candidates who are adequately supported by registered voters within the relevant district will be placed on the ballot, and to further ensure the validity, legality, and fundamental fairness of Virginia elections," the lawsuit says.
Brown ran as a Democrat for the seat two years ago and lost to Taylor. She was running again this year in the Democratic primary but dropped out, saying party leaders in Washington had unfairly hand-picked Luria before Democratic voters had a chance to decide.
The lawsuit says the effort by Taylor could trick voters "who would otherwise support the Democratic nominee to cast their ballot for an unqualified candidate who lacks legitimate support among the electorate, but whose name they may recognize from the last election in which Congressman Taylor faced off against Brown."
Chris Piper, commissioner of the state Department of Elections, declined comment.
James Ellenson, a Newport News attorney representing Brown, issued a statement that said in part:
"The lawsuit filed by the Democratic Party attempting to remove Shaun Brown from the ballot is simply another example of the desperateness of a bankrupt ideology based on bullying and duplicity. The Democratic Party has long since lost its way in representing working class people, people of color, minorities, and progressives."
Brown is also facing federal fraud charges in connection with a summer meals program.