Petitions in a Pandemic: Fairfax Project Helps Virginia Candidates

By Amie Knowles

February 16, 2021

A Fairfax County man created a COVID-friendly way for political hopefuls to collect signatures. 

FAIRFAX – If you’re not a fan of people knocking on your door during political campaigns, chances are you’ll like what Bryan Graham, Fairfax County Democratic Committee chair, recently created.

Every year, political candidates go door to door. There, they collect signatures throughout the various neighborhoods in their district. The signees place their signatures on a petition. Once the candidate gets enough signatures, they qualify for the party primaries.

This year, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic made the petition part of the campaign much harder. Adhering to social distancing guidelines made it difficult for would-be politicians to procure the signatures they needed for the initial step on the campaign trail. 

That’s when some people sought a change. Six candidates filed a lawsuit, arguing the court should allow people to sign electronically.

“It’s all related to the pandemic, the coronavirus. Based off of court cases and court orders, the candidates requested and now are able to – at least for this election – request electronic petitions,” Graham said.

A judge granted the request. However, a new issue quickly arose. Not everyone had access to – or knew their way around – a computer. 

Graham saw a need and quickly took the challenge to find a solution upon himself.

A Creative Idea

Graham heard about some political hopefuls getting creative with petition signing opportunities. 

“This year, people trying to get on the ballot have been doing drive-thru petition drives and things like that,” Graham said. “Which is fine, but there’s still kind of interaction with a person and such.”

The Fairfax resident had a different idea. He created an online platform, which streamlined the petition process for Democratic political hopefuls. 

“I got driven to make this website because once they kind of launched the electronic process, which turned out to just be a PDF form that the state board created, candidates were handling it different ways. Not everybody has the capability on a computer, if they just have a phone, to download a PDF, fill it out, send it back somewhere and whatnot,” Graham said. “So based off of that, I was kind of driven to create this form that makes it a lot easier for people to do. And I think it’s been very successful so far.”

In the first 32 hours after Graham launched, the site collected over 6,600 petitions.

First, the form prompts registered voters to fill out information, like their name and address. Then, the next prompt gets a little more personal – but for necessary verification purposes.

“One of the kind of compromises of allowing electronic signatures was also requiring the last four digits of the voter’s social security number,” Graham said.

Once voters submit their information, they see a list of candidates that fall within their address’s district. They may select a candidate from the list and add their electronic signature to that individual’s petition.

RELATED: Census Delays Create Challenges for Virginia’s Redistricting Commission

On The Trail 

Graham’s petition platform isn’t the only change the pandemic made on the campaign trail. Many political hopefuls altered the way they reached the public in the fall.

“Traditionally, you have more of a door knocking type of thing, talking to people and trying to get them to go vote,” Graham said. “It was, obviously to limit interaction with people, I think it turned more into types of things like literature drops, where people were dropping off, you know, pieces of information to potential voters instead of trying to have conversations. And then we also saw a lot of phone calls last year as well. I think we relied on that a lot more than we did in previous years. Things have definitely been different.”

In spite of the changes and challenges, when Graham saw an opportunity to help, he took it.

“I just always kind of want people to have access to the democratic process and I saw this as an opportunity where we could improve access to people being involved,” Graham said. 

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected] 

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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