The 2010 Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission enabled corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited funds on elections, ruling that limiting independent political spending from corporations and other groups violates the First Amendment right to free speech.
This year, a bipartisan caucus supporting campaign finance reform may get traction. A group called Money Out Virginia, advocates in Virginia affiliated with the group American Promise, is calling for Virginians to support over 20 pieces of legislation designed to reduce big money donations to legislators in Virginia. Bills seeking to restrict the personal use of campaign funds, strengthen current disclosure provisions, enhance oversight authority of the State Board of Elections and limit contributions have been sponsored by members of both parties.
Virginia is one of only a handful of states with no limit on contributions to candidates, and it has no restrictions on personal use of campaign funds. What that means is anyone can give any amount of money to a politician in Virginia, and that candidate for public office can spend the money on anything from a new car to golf clubs. Virginia has a Board of Elections but no detailed regulatory oversight over campaign finance.
Nancy Morgan, coordinator of the Virginia chapter of American Promise, Money Out Virginia, said last week, “If campaign finance reform is going to get passed, it will be this year.” Virginians noticed how much money was spent on campaigns because it was hard to ignore: the cost of elections for the House of Delegates in 2021 totaled over $80 million, 20 percent higher than 2019. Twenty-two candidates each raised over one million dollars to campaign for a seat that pays $18,000 a year.
The race for Governor exceeded $130 million dollars, double the cost of elections in 2017. A record amount of money — $7 million — was contributed by undisclosed donors. By the end of October 2021, some voters answered the door to canvassers saying: “Tell your candidate we don’t want anymore of these TV ads and mailers. Tell them they can spend millions of dollars on something that actually helps people and doesn’t litter our streets with brochures.”
A recently released poll shows Virignians do care about campaign finance reform, despite years of denials by legislators who said it’s not a priority for voters. The Wason Center for Civic Leadership at Christopher Newport University poll indicated 78% of Virginians support reducing money from big campaign donors, and 88% of Virginians support public disclosure of contributions.
The polling confirms voters' perceptions that unchecked political spending in Virginia by corporations, special interest groups and wealthy individuals is overwhelming the voices of average citizens. As a result, candidates devote an increasing amount of time to fundraising, rather than engaging with voters and constituents. Big spending weakens the ability of Virginians to freely and fairly elect a representative government of, by and for the people.
Money Out Virginia commissioned the poll. The group works to decrease the influence money has on politics by supporting an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would give states more power in regulating election spending and supporting campaign finance reform in Virginia.
The poll, which included seven questions about campaign finance in Virginia, was conducted between Nov. 3 and Dec. 2, 2021. Polling was conducted by phone, with 826 households targeted. This included 364 households on landlines and 462 households on cell phones. “These results indicate Virginia voters view campaign finance reform as an important issue,'' said Dr. Bromley-Trujillo, Wason Center Research Director. “Moreover, Republicans and Democrats actually find themselves on the same side of several campaign finance reforms, as shown in this survey.”
Virginia does not currently limit campaign contributions in any capacity; polling showed that 75% of Virginians support limits to the amount of money coming from big campaign donors such as corporations, individuals and political action committees in state and local elections. When it comes to banning political contributions from corporations specifically, 56% of Virginians support banning the practice. Polling also shows that 73% of Virginians support banning the personal use of campaign funds, which is not currently prohibited in Virginia.
"These polling results reveal that Virginia voters recognize that good governance is a critical barometer for our democracy,” said Shruti Shah, President and CEO of the Coalition for Integrity.
VaOurWay’s Executive Director, Heidi Drauschak, added, “These issues have been discussed in Virginia for many years and these polling results show that Virginians now expect the General Assembly to act.”
But two limitations bills died in the Senate and some key bills might be hitting roadblocks in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. Two bills, one by Del. David Bulova (HB492) and Del Tim Anderson (HB86) got out of the House Appropriations sub-committee on Jan. 31.
Because there is resistance by legislators to change an unregulated system, activists are counting on Virignians to get the word out to each representative if these bills are to pass. MoneyOut is hoping voters will do the most effective thing they can do besides vote: call or write their delegate and senator to urge them to pass the bills.
Important legislation and what pro-reform Virginians can do to support it: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1NpynXHGiTlwvf87T5y0fTg-EJBX440CgqjvL_nQhXW4/edit
Bills are being heard both in the (Virginia) Senate and in the House. To track bills, see: https://lis.virginia.govTo learn more about this topic, see: https://vmop.org and https://www.coalitionforintegrity.org/swamp2020/ and follow the effort to reform campaign finance on www.facebook.com/MoneyOutVA/