Virginia’s campaign financing rules are pretty loose – pretty much anyone can donate to whomever they choose without limitation. Disclosure of the contributions and expenditures is supposed to be enough. The problem is the form that the disclosure takes.
The State Board of Elections provides, for free, software that allows candidates to file electronically. Such filing is, according to the site, “mandatory for all statewide candidates and political committees that raise or spend more than $10,000 in a calendar year.” Note that it is not required for General Assembly candidates – although the site says nearly 90% of them chose to do so – nor for candidates for local office. I think it’s time for electronic filing of all campaign finance reports.
Unlike those of General Assembly candidates, local candidates who file their reports on paper do so to the local office of the registrar. As the result, if you want to see what a candidate has received or paid out, you have to call the office and request a copy – for a fee, of course – and then go pick it up. The reports of the General Assembly candidates are available on the SBE website. (Note that while the site says that the reports of local candidates who file electronically are also available, I can’t figure out how to access them. The drop-down menu for “office” on this page doesn’t even have local offices listed.)
The Virginia Public Access Project takes the SBE data and gives value-added information to it, making it possible to easily review money in and out. In recent years, VPAP has attempted to add in the information from local campaigns – but can only do so if the candidate files electronically. No way does VPAP, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, have the resources to get the information from the local registrars’ offices and re-key all the data. So as we here in Norfolk approach an election in May, our access to information on who is giving to whom, and where the money is going, is severely limited.
The simple answer is to make electronic filing mandatory. (Funny – the General Assembly can impose on tax preparers an electronic filing requirement but hasn’t applied the same standard to themselves.) Put some teeth behind the disclosure idea. Make everyone file electronically. This won’t be an additional burden or an additional cost to the campaigns – after all, they are filing these reports already. Some are even using the free software from the SBE to prepare them and then submit them locally on paper!
I know it’s too late to get this legislation in place for Norfolk’s May races. But it’s the right thing to do and I hope the General Assembly takes this up at some point in the not-too-distant future.
Did I mention that VPAP is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization? 🙂 The service that they provide are invaluable to anyone who follows the money in Virginia politics. But they can’t do it without our help. Every time you access the site, think about giving a few bucks to them. No contribution is too large or too small. And to our legislators: I’d like to see every single one of them listed as a sponsor every year. To the bloggers who regularly access the site: I challenge you to join me in contributing at least $50 every year to VPAP. (I made my donation over the weekend.) We uses their services, so they deserve our support.