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Virgil Goode, Constitution Party Presidential Nominee, Faces Criminal Investigation Into Alleged Ballot Fraud [UPDATE]

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Less than a month ago, Constitution Party presidential nominee Virgil Goode was soaking up the best publicity that a third- party candidate could ask for and his polling led some to question whether he could pull votes from Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney in Virginia.

Now, the party-switching ex-lawmaker is facing a petition fraud investigation that could jeopardize his chances of appearing on Virginia ballots at all, let alone spoiling a Romney presidency.

The Virginia Board of Elections unanimously voted Monday to investigate suspected fraud on petition forms submitted by Goode's campaign, according to a statement from the bipartisan committee.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is pursuing a criminal investigation into the Constitution Party's "efforts to gain ballot access for its presidential candidate for the November election," his spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday.

Goode, who served in the Virginia State Senate for 24 years before representing the state's 5th Congressional District until 2009, has spent most of his political career as a Democrat, but then switched parties twice, becoming an independent in 2000 and then a Republican in 2002.

In April, the national Constitution Party selected Goode as its presidential nominee, meant to be an alternative to President Barack Obama and Romney.

One recent report from Public Policy Polling indicated he could impact the election, with 9 percent support in Virginia.

For Mitch Turner, chairman of the party's Virginia organization, the sudden inquiry raises inevitable questions about the board's political agenda.

"Nobody has ever asked any questions about our ballots or anything like that until Congressman Goode is doing well in the polls in Virginia," Turner told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. "We're not doing anything fraudulent. It appears to be more of a political harassment of a small party than anything else."

Virginia State Board of Elections deputy secretary Justin Riemer declined to comment on Turner's allegation but pointed out that a "non-partisan local election official" was the first person to reach out to the agency about signature irregularities.

Goode told The Huffington Post Tuesday that his campaign still had not been informed of the pending investigation -- excluding reporters' phone calls. He remains undeterred by any action the state board may take against his campaign, said Goode.

"We are already [on the ballot] in a number of states that are very close," Goode said. "We would love to be on in Virginia, and that's the reason we're going to keep gathering signatures up to the last minute."

To appear on the Virginia ballot in November, Goode must collect at least 10,000 signatures from qualified state voters by noon Aug. 24, according to the state board of elections. Of those 10,000 signatures, at least 400 must come from each of Virginia's 11 congressional districts.

On Tuesday, Turner said the Goode campaign gathered more than 18,000 signatures, providing a "very significant cushion" of additional signatures above the legal threshold.

Despite the signature advantage, at least one longtime observer of Virginia politics still sees an uphill battle for Goode.

In an email Monday, Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said "no one believes" that Goode could net 9 percent in the hypothetical race, as a Public Policy Polling survey suggested last month. But Goode could still rob Romney of crucial votes in what is shaping up to be a razor-thin race, Sabato wrote.

"Still, a large majority of Goode's votes would come out of Romney's column, and the GOP will do what they can to minimize him — or take him off the ballot entirely," Sabato said, estimating that up to 70 percent of Goode's support could be comprised of Romney defections.

Turner is focused on a more immediate benchmark: Making sure Goode's name is flashed before voters' eyes on Nov. 6.

"We have made a good-faith effort to follow every regulation and cross every 'T' and dot every 'I' with what the board of elections wants us to do," Turner said. "That is it. We have done our best."

UPDATE: 8/8 -- In a statement Tuesday night, the Constitution Party of Virginia called on state election officials to "immediately complete and publicize" validation of the thousands of signatures that it says the Goode campaign has collected to date.

The statement also requested that Cuccinelli's investigation look into whether state election officials were influenced by or working with political operatives.

The local party has still not been notified of any pending investigation into alleged ballot fraud, according to the statement.

"We knew before we started this effort that given Virginia's status as a swing state we would face efforts to keep us off the ballot," Turner said in the statement. "We have been very careful to avoid giving a toehold to those who would restrict ballot access to the establishment politicians who have caused all the problems our country faces."

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