LOOKING AHEAD: Bills filed affecting elections and campaign finance

By: - January 3, 2019 5:01 am

Voters in suburban Henrico’s Short Pump precinct cast their ballots. The area saw a surge in Democratic voters after Trump’s 2016 election. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Next in a series looking ahead to the General Assembly session that starts next week.

In addition to the usual push to make changes to absentee voting and voter registration, Virginia lawmakers will be weighing other issues around how people in the state vote and how campaigns operate.

Redistricting and other issues related to voting maps are not strictly partisan issues — lawmakers on both sides have agreed something should change but have different ideas on what that change should be.

The same goes for campaign finance reform, too. Both Republicans and Democrats have prepared legislation to better track the money that flows in to state and local campaigns.

Here’s a sample of some of the issues related to voting and elections the General Assembly will take up when lawmakers return to town next week:

Redistricting and voting maps

Most lawmakers in both parties agree that Virginia’s redistricting process isn’t working as well as it should, but there’s disagreement on what exactly needs to change.

An appeal by Republicans seeking to keep Virginia’s 2011 House of Delegates maps will be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. The maps place voters in House of Delegates districts and were ruled unconstitutional for relying too much on race when drawing lines.

The result was a gerrymandered map, according to federal courts, which protected Republican incumbents and made it harder for Democratic candidates to compete in districts that demographically favor Republicans.

Because of that, some lawmakers and advocacy groups want to take the map-drawing out of the General Assembly’s hands completely. Others think a few tweaks to the current process would be enough.

Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, who chairs the House Privileges and Elections committee, is pushing for a process that would establish local redistricting commissions to propose electoral districts to a state commission. The state commission would make a final redistricting plan that couldn’t be changed or rejected by the governor.

The commission “will be responsible for submitting to the General Assembly proposed plans for congressional and legislative electoral districts,” a summary of Cole’s legislation says.

Virginia One 2021, a redistricting reform advocacy group, drafted a constitutional amendment that would take the power of drawing maps out of lawmakers’ hands. And with Republicans only holding on to a small majority, some may want to make sure their political opponents don’t end up with the power to draw their districts.

“One of the potential problems that Republicans face in Virginia is that before too much longer there might be a Democratic majority in the legislature,” said Stephen Farnsworth, director for the Center of Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington.

“And if Democrats are in a position to do to them what they did to them in terms of gerrymandering, that wouldn’t be appealing.”

Despite the attention Virginia One 2021’s proposed amendment is getting, lawmakers are still filing legislation that would set more clear rules for the current redistricting process and help remedy some of the problems caused by complicated maps.

Cole filed a bill for a constitutional amendment that would allow the General Assembly to make “technical adjustments” to voting maps after regular redistricting cycles.

In a more specific proposal, Harrisonburg Republican Sen. Mark Obenshain wants localities to adjust lines after regular redistricting cycles to make sure precincts don’t get split. That can be confusing for voters and cause problems for local registrars who make sure voters cast a ballot in the right place. The issue was highlighted in 2017, when 26 misassigned voters on a district line in Newport News could have swung an election in favor of the Democrats.

Obenshain’s proposal would allow counties, cities and towns to fix local district lines to match with congressional or state voting lines and make sure a local precinct is completely within one of those districts.

Sen. Mark Peake, a Republican from Amherst County, filed a similar bill that would still allow some split precincts. Obenshain’s proposal is more strict: if a locality can’t fix a split, it can apply for a waiver to create a split precinct or permission to create a new precinct with fewer voters than required.

Fellow Republican Sen. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield also put forth a bill that requires localities to check and report on voter assignments before the 2019 general election, where all seats in the General Assembly will be on the ballot. Registrars will make corrections, the bill states, and the Board of Elections will present results to the General Assembly.

Campaign finance

Democrats and Republicans have also made early moves to address some of Virginia’s loose campaign finance rules.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, and Cole have both filed bills that would impose a civil penalty on candidates who use campaign funds for personal use.

In both cases, the State Board of Elections would decide if campaign money was improperly used and any registered voter or donor could lodge a complaint against a politician.

The two proposals differ most notably on how much a civil penalty would be. Simon suggests a fine up to $1,000, while Cole caps it at $250. If the board unanimously decided there was a violation, the candidate would also have to pay the campaign committee back.

Simon’s draft bill would allow the Board of Elections to publish guidance on the personal use prohibition, while Cole’s proposal would leave that to the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council.

Other Democrats are interested in giving statewide and local races more scrutiny when it comes to campaign finance.

Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax, wants the Board of Elections to randomly audit campaign finance reports of candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and the General Assembly.

Kory’s bill requires that half of the committees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general are picked for audit and 10 percent of General Assembly campaign committees are checked.

The board would be looking to make sure campaign deposits match amounts reported in finance reports. If there is a discrepancy or missing information, Kory’s bill requires it to be forwarded to the local commonwealth’s attorney. Issues with the statewide offices would be sent to the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.

Candidates for local offices — like town or city councils or boards of supervisors — could also be subject to more strict campaign finance laws if a bill from Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, passes.

Right now, towns with fewer than 25,000 people aren’t subject to the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act of 2006, which lays out the rules for establishing and operating campaign committees, among other rules. Towns can decide to follow the law by passing a local ordinance for it.

Hurst’s legislation would require any candidate who collects or spends more than $25,000 in a campaign to be subject to the act, regardless of whether a locality has passed an ordinance.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.