No V.I. law prohibits partisans running for one office as independents while holding and running for party offices, an attorney for V.I. independent gubernatorial ticket Soraya Diase Coffelt and John Canegata argued in court Tuesday, while asking for a temporary injunction overturning their candidacy’s rejection.
The V.I. Elections Office rejected the nominating petition for lieutenant governor candidate Canegata last week, saying that, as a registered Republican, he cannot legally run on a nonpartisan ticket with independent Coffelt, giving Canegata three days to resubmit.
Coffelt and Canegata declined to resubmit, instead challenging the ruling in court. They asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order to allow their candidacy to move forward while they await the court’s final ruling on the dispute.
Representing the V.I. Election System, Assistant Attorney General Carol Thomas-Jacobs cited a passage of V.I. law saying "any person running for public office must run as a candidate consistent with the political party designation under which the candidate is registered at the time of the filing of the nomination petition."
She argued V.I. law lays out two pathways to candidacy: one for party members and one for independents and nonpartisan groups, and candidates must pick one or the other.
Thomas-Jacobs also pointed out Canegata signed a nominating petition to run on an independent ticket while holding the Republican Party state chairmanship and while running for that party office in the same election. Running as an independent while actually being a Republican would confuse voters and create chaos in the election process, she said. And allowing it would disrupt the Republican Party’s selection of its own candidates.
U.S. District Judge Wilma Lewis pressed Thomas-Jacobs for specific statutory language that expressly prohibited a registered partisan from running as an independent for one office, and as a partisan for another.
Thomas-Jacobs paused, and then said the statute was not explicit, but taken as a whole, any other interpretation would be unreasonable because it would mislead voters and weaken the system.
Andrew Simpson, attorney for Coffelt and Canegata countered that because there was no Republican primary or candidate for governor and lieutenant governor this year, there would not be any confusion or interference with the primary process.
"It’s not as if we are going to have a Republican running against a Republican," he said.
Lewis asked Simpson where the law allowed a candidate to register as a party member and also run for office as an independent. Simpson said the question was not where it was allowed, but that there is nothing in the law prohibiting it.
As for voter confusion, Simpson said the Supreme Court had ruled that voters should be broadly trusted to understand what they are doing, citing a 1986 case, Tashjian v. Republican Party. In that case, the court ruled that the Republican Party of Connecticut could permit independent voters to vote in Republican primaries, despite a state law forbidding it. The court ruled that the voters should be trusted to be able to understand voting in the primary. Canegata’s circumstance is nearly the converse, in that instead of inviting nonpartisans to vote in a primary, he wants to run as an independent and also remain a partisan.
Lewis asked Thomas-Jacobs what legal harm would ensue if Canegata and Coffelt were successful. Thomas-Jacobs pointed largely towards voter confusion and potential harm to the primary process.
"I don’t think it is fair to be in one party and yet you get to be identified on the ballot as something else," she said. "A person who made a conscious decision to not vote for either party but vote instead for an independent would be voting for a Republican," she said.
Allowing Canegata’s interpretation of the law would profoundly affect the primaries of all parties, Thomas-Jacobs said. "If Democrats could skip the primary and run as independents but also as Democrats, it would render the primary and party process moot," she said.
Lewis asked Coffelt and Canegata what harm they would suffer if the court did not grant a temporary restraining order. They said it would effectively prevent them from being able to raise money and campaign while there is a cloud over the candidacy.
Lewis said she would consider the arguments and filings of both parties and issue a ruling on the TRO "promptly." Both sides are to submit briefs to the court on a permanent injunction in the next week, with a final ruling from the court expected in July.