Virginia ranks 43 — in the bottom ten — in the 2022 State Campaign Finance Index, which ranks the 50 states plus Washington, D.C., based on state laws around campaign finance and funding transparency for state legislative and executive races.
“How these races are financed and how much transparency is required are key to curbing the influence of money in our political system and enhancing trust that politicians are not representing only wealthy special interests. A state’s score does not necessarily mean its politicians are more or less corrupt than another, but it does reflect the willingness of the state’s politicians to favor special interests and lessen the appearance that politicians are beholden to donors who write the biggest checks,” the Coalition for Integrity said in a June 21 press release announcing the results.
Virginia earned 55.48 percent out of a possible 100 percent; Washington took first place with 83.99 percent.
The index is based on 10 principles, including the presence of an independent agency with wide power to enforce campaign finance laws; meaningful sanctions if there are violations; contribution limits to campaigns and parties; bans on contributions from unions and corporations; comprehensive disclosure of independent expenditures; and easily accessible campaign finance data on a state agency website.
In Virginia, the Department of Elections oversees campaign finance law, but according to the index scoring chart, the agency doesn’t have power to conduct its own investigations, hold public hearings, issue subpoenas, issue sanctions, only partial ability to issue late filing fines, and no ability to issue other fines.
Virginia does properly protect its oversight officials from removal without cause.
The Commonwealth performed poorly on questions about campaign finance contribution limits — it’s one of only five states that have no contribution limits.
“As financing political campaigns remains the best way to buy influence in policy decisions, the amount spent dramatically increases from year to year. In the 2020 election cycle, contributions to gubernatorial and state legislative candidates set new records with contributions nearing $1.9 billion, up from nearly $1.6 billion in the 2016 race. The trend continued in 2021. In Virginia, which has no limits on campaign contributions, the candidates for Governor raised over $130 million – Terry McAuliffe (D) received just over $54.2 million in contributions, while Glen Youngkin (R) received roughly $65.7 million,” the report states.
On transparency, Virginia earns mediocre scores. Contributors to independent spenders must be reported, but not the owners or funders of LLCs or 501(c) nonprofits that contribute to independent spenders. Virginia earned full marks on disclosure of advertisers. Virginia does allow reports to be filed online with the Department of Elections, but they’re not easily available on the DOE website. Instead, Virginians rely on the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project to provide that data.
Virginia has a poor reputation on campaign finance law.
Former Governor Bob McDonnell was convicted of corruption-related charges in 2014, although the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that in a 2016 decision.
“Is Virginia Americas Most Corrupt State?” conservative blog Bacon’s Rebellion asked in 2014.
In 2016, the AP reviewed Virginia campaign donations and expenditures and found that politicians are spending donated funds on fancy restaurants, hotels, and personal bills, with some appearing to use campaign finances as personal income.
“Virginia Is for Corruption,” The Cato Institute reported in 2019.
In 2021, the Democratic-controlled Senate blocked passage of a law to largely ban personal use of campaign funds. In 2022, a Republican-controlled House committee killed a similar bill, and the General Assembly instead opted to continue a campaign finance reform study committee begun in 2021.
Senator John Bell (D-Loudoun) sponsored the 2022 bill, based on the study committee’s work in 2021.
Bell told a House Privileges and Elections subcommittee in March, “Over the years, I know we’ve had many bills in this subject area, frankly, by members of both parties. This is a really tough area to go into, I want to just say to the committee as we get into it. And we took the bill that started off, we heard testimony, and we worked with stakeholders again and worked with members of both parties, and we dialed the bill back in a few areas.”
“This isn’t a perfect bill. It doesn’t hit every area of campaign finance. It’s a start. I think if we tried to do a perfect bill, we’re going to end up with more problems than we want,” he said.
Delegate Margaret Ransone (R-Westmoreland) told Bell, “I’ve heard you say a couple of times, this is a start, this is a beginning. I personally am uncomfortable putting something in code that’s a start.”
“Putting something in code that’s not perfect, that’s not just right, I feel like is wrong. We established a work group. My understanding is that the work group never came to a consensus together collectively on legislation and voted collectively as a majority,” she said.
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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].