On Va. Democrats’ 2020 to-do list, voting rights seem to top campaign finance reform

By: - January 2, 2020 12:01 am

Dylan Triplett (left) dances while her mother, Deborah, fills out a ballot at Robious Elementary School in Midlothian, Va., November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)

The weekend before she’ll be officially elected the next speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Eileen Filler-Corn will host a sendoff fundraiser at a Fairfax bar with donation levels ranging from $50 to $5,000.

When she gets to Richmond, Filler-Corn donors looking for face time with the House’s new leader will be able to join her at a rock ‘n’ roll-themed fundraiser in the trendy Scott’s Addition district. The suggested donation levels for that event — which will take a place few days before the 2020 legislative session begins and the state’s in-session fundraising ban goes into effect — top out at $10,000.

It’s not particularly unusual for statehouse leaders to take in one last post-election fundraising haul before turning their attention to legislative business that, in some cases, has a direct impact on donors’ financial interests.

What will be different in 2020 — after a record-breaking election cycle that saw the two parties raise a combined $121 million — is that Democrats will have the power to change the largely open-ended campaign finance system many of them, including Gov. Ralph Northam, have criticized in the past

But as new Democratic majorities prepare to reshape state law in a wide variety of policy areas, campaign finance reform doesn’t appear to be a major piece of the first-year agenda.

“We’re definitely talking about that and so many other issues,” Filler-Corn said recently when asked about the prospects for campaign finance changes in the upcoming session. “And we’ll definitely get back to you as soon as we have ideas and legislation.”

Unlike in federal elections, where contributions from individuals are capped at $2,800 and direct contributions from corporations are mostly banned, Virginia’s laws place almost no limits on the size or source of political donations.

In interviews, several Democratic lawmakers said that, when it comes to reforming how democracy works in Virginia, making it easier to vote will probably be a more urgent priority than curtailing the money flowing into state politics. Among the big-ticket items the General Assembly’s election-law committees will be trying to tackle will be redistricting reform, excuse-free early voting, a repeal of the law that requires voters to present a photo ID.

Overhauling campaign finance rules, the lawmakers said, may be more of a long-term discussion.

“I just don’t know if there’s the will to change the landscape,” said Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk, the incoming chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee. 

Lindsey noted that a Democratic-sponsored bill that would have prevented any person or organization from contributing more than $10,000 to a campaign was “not well-received” in the 2019 session.

That proposal could have had significant ramifications for Democratic megadonor Michael Bills, a Charlottesville investor who gave more than $10,000 to dozens of Democratic General Assembly candidates in competitive races this year, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. For the 2018-2019 election cycle, Bills contributed roughly $2.1 million to Democratic-aligned candidates and groups, making him the top individual campaign donor in the state.

That put Bills, an energy reform advocate, slightly ahead of Dominion Energy, the state-regulated utility whose political influence Bills says he’s trying to dismantle. For the cycle, Dominion contributed $1.8 million to both Republican and Democratic committees, according to VPAP, including several late-cycle donations to Democrats who went on to be tapped for key committee posts in the new-look General Assembly.

That trend may not bode well for progressive lawmakers’ efforts to ban political donations from state-regulated public service corporations like Dominion. Nevertheless, that proposal has been reintroduced for the 2020 session.

Though Democrats outraised and outspent Republicans in the 2019 cycle, the big money flowed both ways.

Capping contribution size also would have prevented Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, from accepting a $500,000 contribution from conservative Midwestern businessman Richard Uihlein, whose donation helped Freitas fund a successful write-in campaign after paperwork errors left him off the ballot.

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, who was endorsed this year by campaign finance reform group End Citizens United, said the issue requires a careful approach. Poorly designed legislation, he said, could push political dollars to so-called “dark money” PACs that don’t have to be as transparent about their spending.

“We need to start having a conversation about what successful campaign finance systems look like so that we don’t make the system worse,” VanValkenburg said. “What is an appropriate limit? What are appropriate regulations on who can and cannot give? What do other states look like?”

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, the incoming chairman of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, said that if discussions are underway for a big push on campaign finance reform, he hasn’t been a part of them. But he said he thinks the issue is ripe for discussion.

“I think we’ve got to do everything we can to restore people’s trust in government,” Deeds said.

Democratic Sen.-elect Ghazala Hashmi, who was endorsed by End Citizens United in her successful bid for a GOP-held seat in the Richmond suburbs, said flatly that she doesn’t expect broad campaign finance reform to pass in 2020. As a community college administrator and first-time candidate who raised more than $2.6 million to win her spot in the state Senate, Hashmi said fundraising is an “overwhelming burden” that may deter people from running for office.

“It’s a challenge,” Hashmi said. “And I think this is why we don’t see a broad spectrum of individuals running or enough diversity of individuals actually holding office. We’re really going to have to take a hard look at how campaigns are run and financed.”

Both Deeds and Lindsey said removing barriers to voting will be a major concern for the election committees they’ll soon lead.

To that end, both men have introduced bills to repeal the state’s controversial photo ID law that requires voters to show identification at their polling place. Republicans have defended the rule as a straightforward way to prevent voter fraud, but Democrats have said it creates a needless burden that falls disproportionately on the elderly and people of color. 

Lindsey said he sees no basis for the claims that large-scale voter fraud is a significant threat.

“Not to any statistical degree, anyway,” Lindsey said.

The Democratic majorities are also expected to overhaul the state’s current absentee voting system, which requires voters to give an excuse for why they can’t cast their ballot on Election Day, in favor of a less restrictive early voting period. State elections officials have recommended letting voters cast ballots early for up to 45 days before an election.

Deeds also said he anticipates a conversation about a long-term change for the state policy that disenfranchises felons for life unless their rights are restored by the governor. Recent governors have made the rights restoration process close to automatic for ex-offenders who have completed their time, but the legislature could press for a permanent rights restoration policy.

“We need to make sure that that’s not something that’s subject to a change in the governor’s office,” Deeds said.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]