Articles by Claire Guthrie Gastañaga
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Financing Virginia Elections -- Time for Change?
Richmond WOMAN, Vol. 1, Issue 8, July 2004, pp.12-13

In Virginia, every year is election year.  Our system of “off year” or odd year elections for statewide and legislative offices,[1] coupled with even year elections for President, members of Congress and local government officials, means that every year someone is running for office, and every year we go to the polls to vote, sometimes twice if our local government elections are still held in the spring.  And, because Virginia is a state where campaigns at every level are financed with private contributions, every year we receive multiple requests for funds in direct mail pleas, phone calls from candidates, invitations to pricey events, and, increasingly, email solicitations. 

This drumbeat for funds gets louder as the “price” of campaigns escalates, even for election to local offices in nonpartisan elections.  For example, the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP, www.vpap.org) found that, in 2001, candidates for Attorney General spent more than $5,000,000; Lieutenant Governor candidates more than $6,000,000; and candidates for Governor more than $34,000,000. VPAP also reported that challengers for legislative races who received 40% of the vote in 1999 spent an average of almost $250,000 to lose a senate race and almost $170,000 to lose a house race. Winners usually spent more. The Virginian Pilot reported recently that candidates for the Virginia Beach City Council spent as much as $80,000 to win election in spring 2004.  Richmond’s 2004 city council races and the campaign for citywide mayor, to be held this fall, are likely to be hotly contested and represent the most expensive local campaigns in the City’s history.

Part of the reason for the escalating price of elections is the fact that Virginia, unlike most states, allows corporations to contribute directly to political candidates and sets no limits on individual or corporate contributions or on campaign expenditures.  The present system relies on disclosure of the amount and source of contributions to protect the integrity of the process and the interests of the citizens.   As VPAP says, “[i]n rejecting limits, the General Assembly has adopted a system where candidates police themselves by disclosing the source of their donations. The theory is that by making the information available to the public, candidates will avoid becoming too reliant upon one donor or one industry.” 

Theory is only as good as the reality of disclosure, however, and Virginians still have limited access to information on campaign financing, particularly at the local level. VPAP makes an increasing amount of information available online about campaign donors and expenditures for legislative and statewide campaigns, and statewide candidates are required by state law to file their campaign finance reports electronically with the State Board of Elections.  Nonetheless, people interested in the financing of local elections are still required to visit the local registrar’s office to review campaign finance reports for local candidates or to rely on local news outlets to inform them about campaign donors, contributions and expenditures.

What do we know about those currently financing campaigns?  A report by Public Campaign titled “The Color of Money” reports that individual Virginians contributed more than $34,000,000 to federal campaigns in 2002 in amounts of $200 or more.  63% of these contributions came from households with incomes over $100,000 and 93.8% came from individuals living or working in zip codes where the population is predominantly white and non-Hispanic.  This is true although less than 20% of Virginia households have incomes higher than $100,000 and almost 30% of the state’s population is African American, Asian Pacific American, Hispanic or other minority.  See, http://www.colorofmoney.org/state.asp.  It is unlikely that the picture of contributors to state and local races would look much different.  

VPAP reports that, since 1998, the following industry groups have each contributed more than $3,000,000 to statewide candidates for Virginia’s 2001 and 2005 elections: real estate/construction, $9,926,000; technology communication, $6,420,000; finance/insurance, $6,331,000; business/retail services, $6,319,000; lawyers and law firms, $5,381,000; health care, $3,477,000 and energy/natural resources, $3,402,000.

Donors to campaigns argue that they are investing in “good government” or are only looking for “access,” not trying to dictate results.  Reasonable people may wonder, however, whether millions in individual and corporate contributions have had an impact on policy-making in areas such as: 1) tax policy (including, for example, repeal of the estate tax, preference for sales tax increases over income tax increases, and limits on taxes on internet sales); 2) limits on growth or development; 3) deregulation of the banking, telecommunications and energy industries; and 4) issues related to tort reform and insurance costs.

Given the constitutional protection of free speech (which the courts have held to include campaign contributions), one of the only ways out of the current system is a system of publicly financed campaigns.  So-called, Clean Campaign Act laws are now in place in Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Vermont.   One advocate for these laws is Public Campaign, a national, non-profit, non-partisan organization.  Public Campaign describes clean money campaign reform as offering “full public financing for candidates who agree to spending limits and reject private contributions.”

Public financing is not the only way Virginia’s privately funded campaign finance system can be improved, but it is the only vehicle by which it could be replaced.  If you are interested in seeing a change in the present system of financing campaigns in Virginia, here are three things that you need to do:

1)       Get involved with organizations like the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and Public Campaign that support campaign finance reform.  Find out more about these organizations and proposed reforms at http://www.lwv.org/where/promoting/cfr.html; http://www.commoncause.org/states/; http://www.publicampaign.org/index.htm.

2)       Support candidates (financially and with your vote) who support clean elections laws or other campaign finance reforms.  This is obviously a bit of a paradox.  Unless you participate in the current system, you’ll have no voice in changing it.  Women in Virginia currently register and vote less often than women in more than 30 other states, and women contribute to Virginia campaigns less frequently and at lower dollar values than similarly situated men. Women, particularly baby boom women, can do more.  Regardless of age, women in America disproportionately decide where a family's funds will be spent. According to Martha Barletta, author of Marketing to Women: How to Understand, Reach and Increase Your Share of the World's Largest Market Segment (Dearborn Trade Publishing, 2003), women control or influence 80% of all purchases of both consumer and business goods and services. They have sole or joint ownership of 87% of homes and buy 61% of major home-improvement products. They account for 66% of all home-computer purchases and 80% of all health-care services. They carry 76 million credit cards, 8 million more than men. And they start 70% of all new businesses. "In a nutshell," says Barletta, "women are the ones spending the money, and boomer women have more money to spend."  We need to spend some of our money helping “our” candidates get elected.

3)       Read HB 844, http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?ses=041&typ=bil&val=hb844, and, if you agree that Virginia needs a clean election law, tell the members of the House Privileges and Elections Committee and your legislators that you support passage of the bill. Introduced by Richmond Delegate Viola Baskerville in the 2004 General Assembly Session, HB 844 would bring public financing of campaigns to Virginia by creating the Virginia Clean Election Act and Fund.  This bill, based on the Maine Clean Elections Act, has been carried over for consideration by the House Privileges and Elections Committee until the 2005 Session.  The Committee must act on the bill by December 2004.  You can find out who the committee members are and how to contact them at http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?041+com+H18.  You can find out who your legislators are at http://conview.state.va.us/whosmy/constinput.asp.

Only by getting involved, can you hope to make a difference.(end)

[1] Only Virginia and New Jersey have odd year elections for statewide offices.

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