Gov. Ralph Northam outlined a package of proposed funding increases for schools that includes an additional 2 percent raise for teachers. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Dec. 11, 2018)

Gov. Ralph Northam and several Democratic lawmakers presented a suite of bills Monday that would remove Virginia’s voter identification requirement, allow no-excuse absentee voting and limit the size, source and use of campaign donations.

Many of the proposals have been around for years, some since the 1990s, Northam said. They likely face an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled General Assembly. A spokesman for House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, could not immediately provide a comment on the legislative package. 

“It’s time for Virginia to step up and make this reform,” Northam said Monday.

Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, will sponsor bills in their respective chambers to allow no-excuse absentee voting. Right now, voters have to provide a reason to vote absentee, a list that includes travel, work schedules, religious obligations or pregnancy.

Locke and fellow Democratic Del. Kaye Kory of Fairfax will carry bills to remove Virginia’s photo ID law that was passed in 2013.

The law was challenged and upheld in court in 2016.

“While photo ID  laws are intended to reduce voter fraud, very little such voter fraud actually exists,” Northam said. “Instead of fixing a problem, the photo ID law just makes it harder for people, especially minority voters or low-income voters, to lawfully vote.”

Currently, Virginia offers a free photo ID for voters who don’t have any other form. It’s available through general registrars’ offices.

Campaign finance reform

Northam also proposed “extensive” campaign finance reform.

“There are no limits on the size of campaign checks, there are no limits on the source of campaign checks and there are very little limits on how the checks can actually be spent,” he said. “Thirty-nine states and the federal government have limitations. It is past time for Virginia to catch up.”

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, will carry a bill that would cap campaign contributions at $10,000 per candidate over the course of a given primary and general election cycle.

“There’s too much big money in politics,” Petersen said. “We need some reasonable limits on what people can contribute in order to keep the process honest.”

As he has in the past, Petersen filed a different bill unrelated to the governor’s announcement that would also prohibit candidates from accepting donations from public service corporations — utility companies — and their PACs.

The issue has come into focus in recent years as advocates have pushed for elected officials to reject money from Dominion Energy, whose influence over the General Assembly, usually resulting in bills that benefit its bottom line, has come under increasing scrutiny. Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, who has declared his intent to run for governor in 2021, is among a growing group of politicians who say they won’t take donations from the utility giant.

Northam did include a bill that Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Woodbridge, will file to ban direct corporate and business contributions and stop those companies from making direct contributions to any political action committees it might have. Employees can still donate as they want, Northam said.

Recently, Dominion hasn’t been the top corporate donor in Virginia politics, according to data kept by the Virginia Public Access Project.

Altria, the tobacco company, donated $252,597 to campaigns and candidates between 2017 and 2018. United Co., a coal business, has also upped their donations to $217,500 to help with its lobbying effort to build a casino in Bristol.

Charlottesville environmentalist Michael Bills is also one of Virginia’s top political donors, contributing $275,000 mostly to Democratic campaigns.

Guzman and Northam said blocking some of those large donations will foster more trust in state politics, and advocates agree.

“Banning corporate campaign contributions, like those from publicly regulated monopolies like Dominion, is critical to ensuring state government works for Virginians, not special interests,” said Brennan Gilmore, executive director of Clean Virginia, which is bankrolled by Bills. “It would help undo the legalized corruption that has allowed Dominion to bilk ratepayers out of millions of dollars, and we strongly support total bans on corporate campaign contributions.”

In the meantime, Northam, who has received nearly $200,000 from Dominion as a state senator, lieutenant governor and governor, said he intends to keep accepting donations from large companies.

“Until we’re able to pass this reform that will affect both sides of the aisle … I will operate in that landscape,” he said.

Just last month, a fundraiser for Northam’s PAC was held at McGuireWoods, Dominion’s influential law firm.

Republicans also criticized Northam’s continued acceptance of the same campaign contributions he’s proposed to limit.

“As his proposal to limit the freedom to support candidates moves through the legislative process, the Governor can quickly demonstrate his commitment to this legislation by immediately returning more than $400,000 dollars to his donors who exceeded the proposed limits in just the past year,” House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, said in an emailed statement.

Civil penalties on personal use

Northam also plans to implement findings from a four-year-old report done in the wake of former Gov. Bob Mcdonnell’s public corruption case, in which a judge found McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, guilty of taking what amounted to bribes. The U.S. Supreme Court later vacated the former governor’s conviction. News outlets reported Monday that Bob McDonnell has filed for divorce.

A bill by Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, would impose a civil penalty on candidates who use campaign funds for personal use. Republican Del. Mark Cole of Spotsylvania filed a similar bill, though the governor did not include it in his announcement.

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.