Could GOP Presidential Candidates Fail to Meet Ballot Requirements in Virginia?

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Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman and perhaps even the surging Newt Gingrich might not have a shot at winning Virginia’s Republican presidential primary. As worried GOP officials in the state explain, that’s partly because there’s a chance some Republican presidential candidates might not even appear on the ballot.

Virginia’s primary, which takes place on March 6–Super Tuesday–is considered a valuable primary win, and perhaps a vital one, depending on how the early states pan out. The requirements to appear on the Old Dominion primary ballot, however, are by far the most challenging among any state through Super Tuesday.

Meeting those requirements isn’t particularly burdensome for relatively well-funded and organized campaigns. But in the fractured, fickle 2012 GOP race, even some candidates running near the front of the pack have done so without a traditional campaign apparatus. 

“Some of the smaller campaigns, they need to be organized,” says a Virginia GOP official who is directly involved in overseeing the primary process there. “We have been trying to send the word out to these guys. There are legions of chances to screw this up.”

When asked if some candidates might not make it on the ballot March 6, the official acknowledges, “Yeah. It is very much a possibility.”

The requirements for appearing on the ballot for the vast majority of states with primaries before or on Super Tuesday are relatively easy. Most states require that candidates fill out a form and pay a fee. In some states, the Secretary of State and/or the state party simply generates a list of the most well-known names for the ballot.

But in Virginia, each candidate must gather the signatures of 10,000 qualified voters. Those signatures must include at least 400 registered voters from each of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts who say they intend to vote in the primary. It’s important to have extras, because Virginia GOP officials will check at least 4,400 of those signatures against a database to ensure they are legitimate. (The state recommends that campaigns gather between 15,000 and 20,000 signatures, with at least 700 from each congressional district.)

The deadline for this process is Dec. 22. Virginia officials say that any campaign that hasn’t started the process probably would not make it. “If they are not already collecting petitions, they are going to have a hard time getting on the ballot,” says the Virginia official involved in regulating the process.

State GOP sources say they know the campaigns of Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain are already working to get signatures. Those officials say they simply don’t know about others, including Gingrich, who has shot toward the top of national polls in recent days. The officials’ concern is if well-wired state GOP officials haven’t heard about them, the signature-gathering efforts by other campaigns may be inadequate or nonexistent.

Gingrich’s spokesman, R.C. Hammond, says a band of volunteers has been gathering signatures in Virginia “for the past several weeks.” The campaigns for Santorum and Huntsman did not immediately return emails seeking comment.

Failure to appear on the ballot in Virginia would seem nearly unthinkable for a serious contender. “Virginia is a swing state for the fall and the eventual nominee would want to do well here in the primary as a way of building toward November,” noted the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato. “I see omission from the Virginia ballot as a major embarrassment.” But this year, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.