I have the nerdish habit of surfing around the Virginia Public Access Project website from time to time. It’s an incredible resource, and completely funded by donations from wonks, politicos and like minded organizations. VPAP publishes campaign finance data that is publicly reported in an interface and format that is a lot friendlier than that which the State Board of Elections makes available.
Doing some research on VPAP, I discovered some interesting things. Like the fact that Ken Reid’s campaign is fully one-third financed (so far) by real estate interests. Or that some of Scott York’s top donors declined to provide their legally-required occupational data.
I thought that, perhaps, VPAP just had insufficient information, so I took it upon myself to give the State Board of Elections a call. Talking to the harried, but very helpful staff at the State Board of Elections was extremely illuminating. I was informed that the State Board of Elections, having seen its budget cut quite aggressively during this year’s state budget negotiations, no longer reviews campaign finance disclosures for accuracy. Indeed, when asked what recourse I, as a citizen, might have to get missing occupation information about donors who gave more than $100 (for example) I was told that I really had none.
The entire SBE budget, you see, is focused on the job of planning and executing the August primaries and November elections. And that is as it should be. Administering elections is the primary job of the SBE. Enforcing campaign finance laws is a secondary objective, and when budgets are slashed, secondary goals are often sacrificed in the process. It does beg the question, however, as to how many campaign finance shenanigans are going unnoticed in this unsupervised environment.
It also does a grave disservice to the voters, who have a right to know who is funding campaigns for offices throughout the Commonwealth. I would think that voters in Richmond, for example, might want to know if one or another candidate for School Board is receiving a lot of money from people in the charter school business. That seems, to me, to be a perfectly reasonable criteria for a voter to consider when evaluating his or her choices in November.
Perhaps even more interesting is that, so far, none of the major media who cover the Commonwealth’s elections have noticed these campaign finance discrepancies (even as they notice others) and made the same phone call to the State Board of Elections that I did this week. A local sheriff doing a favor for a major campaign contributor is definitely news, but isn’t the breakdown of the very system of full disclosure that makes such a story even possible a more important tale to be told?