Decided: May 29, 2013
Affirming the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, the Fourth Circuit held that petitioners had standing to challenge the constitutionality of a residency requirement for petitions and also held that the residency requirement is unconstitutional.
The Libertarian Party of Virginia (LPVA) circulated petitions in Virginia with the hope to collect enough signatures to place its national candidate for President of the United States on the ballot in November 2012. Virginia law requires 10,000 signatures from qualified Virginia voters, with at least 400 signatures from each of Virginia’s eleven congressional districts. Virginia law also requires the candidate personally or a Virginia resident who can vote to witness the signatures. In May 2012, the LPVA and Darryl Bonner, a Pennsylvania Libertarian and professional petition circulator, filed suit seeking injunctive and declarative relief alleging that the “witness residency requirement impermissibly burdens their rights to free speech and free association under the First Amendment.” The Virginia State Board of Elections (Board) contested the standing of the LPVA and Bonner. The district court rejected the Board’s standing argument and declared the witness residency requirement unconstitutional. The Board appealed.
The Fourth Circuit addressed the standing issue first. The Court held that the encumbrance on the LVPA’s ability to circulate petitions constitutes an injury in fact for standing purposes. The Court also examined standing for Bonner. The Board challenged Bonner’s standing because he was currently injured and thus would not be able to petition signatures; Bonner was suffering from a right knee injury which had “scotched his immediate plans to circulate petitions for the LPVA.” The Court stated that his legal injury “related more closely to his asserted injury than does his physical infirmity,” the residency requirement would impair his ability to petition in 2016, and he still could have sat on a street corner and petitioned people for signatures. Thus, the Fourth Circuit held that both LPVA and Bonner had standing to challenge the residency requirement.
The Fourth Circuit then addressed the merits of the LPVA’s and Bonner’s argument. The Court followed other circuits by applying strict scrutiny analysis to petitioning restrictions like the residency requirement. The Board argued its compelling interest was in preventing election fraud, which the Court and the parties agreed was a compelling interest. The Board argued that the “integrity of the petitioning process depends on ‘state election officials access to the one person who can attest to the authenticity of potentially thousands of signatures, . . . access made more difficult, perhaps, if the witness resides beyond the subpoena power of the state.” The LVPA and Bonner argued that the Board could make out-of-state witnesses sign a binding legal agreement to comply with any civil or criminal subpoena the Board may issue. The Court agreed that this was a less intrusive alternative, and the Board introduced no meaningful evidence to rebut this alternative. Thus, the Fourth Circuit held that the witness residency requirement is unconstitutional.
Jeffrey K. Gurney