On Election Day in 2017, Ned Gallaway realized 50 of his campaign signs were missing something: A sentence about who paid for them.
Gallaway, running unopposed for the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, found each sign and added the phrase “Paid for and authorized by Ned Gallaway for Supervisor,” by hand.
“It was embarrassing,” he said.
Failing to add the disclosure statement was also a violation of Virginia’s Stand By Your Ad law.
Gallaway didn’t know what to do when he noticed his error on Election Day.
And there’s no clarity on how a candidate should pay fines. Should they pay out of pocket or from campaign committees, which are funded by supporters’ donations?
Campaign ad laws are campaign finance laws at their core, said Alex Keena, a Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor.
So Virginia’s law, which closely mirrors the federal version, doesn’t address content and isn’t very strong, Keena said.
“There isn’t a lot of teeth,” he said. “It limits the tools for states to monitor their own elections.”
Gallaway reported himself as breaking the law, and in May the Virginia Board of Elections charged him a $400 fine for the missing disclosure statements on his signs.
At the same meeting, though, the board struggled with what to do when candidates report themselves, which political entities are subject to the law and when it’s appropriate to charge more or less for a violation.
Under Virginia’s law, determining violations and setting fines are up to the board.
It makes it hard for board members to know if they’re making fair decisions and difficult for candidates to understand the process, including how to pay the fine once it’s decided.
Virginia Department of Elections is working on more specific policies to give more clarity on when the board should hear a complaint and how much to fine charge offending candidates and organizations.
One thing the Department of Elections doesn’t appear to tackling though is whether candidates should be allowed to pay from campaign committees. Right now, the law doesn’t say how violations should be paid.
According to the most recently filed campaign finance reports, Gallaway, Del. Cheryl Turpin, D-Virginia Beach, and 2017 GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie paid their fines from campaign money.
Gallaway said he use campaign funds because he felt like it was the most transparent way to pay. Otherwise, his constituents may never know he made a mistake.
“To me it keeps everything clean and above board,” he said. He may reimburse his campaign fund with personal money for the fine, he said.
Gillespie and Turpin didn’t respond to requests for comment on why they opted to pay from their campaign committees.
Turpin was penalized for an incomplete disclosure statement on a last-minute flyer in the 85th House District that called her Republican opponent Rocky Holcomb “racist.” He reported the ad to the Department of Elections for its content, which he said was baseless.
When election officials reviewed the complaint, they discovered the disclosure statement was incomplete. They never waded into whether Turpin’s allegations were out-of-bounds.
“There are certain things that are off-limits, in my opinion,” Holcomb said. “We don’t want to restrict folks from speaking their mind, but there’s a responsibility that comes with that.”
In some ways, the loose guidance on how to enforce Stand By Your Ad laws leaves room for it to be a proxy to punish candidates and organizations for overly negative messages, Keena said.
Last year’s Republican candidate for governor, Ed Gillespie, was fined $2,000 for two television ads. It was the biggest fine handed down to the candidates and groups the board considered at its May meeting.
Gillespie was reported for running text on the screen at the same time as his disclosure statement. According to the law, disclosure statements have to appear alone onscreen.
Three of Gillespie’s ads were reported: One called out opponent Ralph Northam for skipping meetings of the state economic development agency, one claimed Northam voted to allow sanctuary cities and “let dangerous illegal immigrants back on the street, increasing the threat of MS-13,”; and another featured Danny Diggs, the sheriff of York County and Poquoson, endorsing Gillespie.
Northam was also reported for issues with a disclosure statement on an ad in which he called Gillespie “Enron Ed” and linked him to lobbying work that led to education budget cuts and outsourcing jobs. State staff didn’t find issues with Northam’s ad.
Unlike flyers and yard signs, the board had no previous rulings on television ads, policy analyst Arielle Schneider said in May, and the rules are “nuanced,” according to minutes of the meeting.
Clara Belle Wheeler, vice-chair of the board, said lawmakers needed to be more careful drafting laws. It seems the law’s intent is to ensure clear disclosure, which Gillespie’s ads did, she said.
Wheeler, who stumped for the Republican Party during the 2017 election, abstained from voting on Gillespie’s fine.
Virginia’s law means well, Keena said. It’s important for voters to know who sponsors the negative messages that often end up in campaign ads.
“If you don’t, then you have a breakdown of trust,” he said.
But being able to pay out of campaign committee bank accounts isn’t much of a punishment for candidates running in expensive races, Keena said. Last year’s gubernatorial contest, for example, was a $20 million race.
In smaller races, any fine is a big deal because it could make voters think candidates are diving into the gutter, Gallaway said.
“It could hurt a campaign more than any ad,” he said.