(The Center Square) — Virginia has one of the most lax campaign finance laws in the nation, and reform efforts are ongoing among those who believe the lack of limitations may ultimately lead to corporate corruption of the political process.
In contrast, others think tighter campaign finance laws would infringe on rights protected by the Constitution.
There is no cap on what individuals, corporations, public utilities or political action committees can donate to a political campaign in Virginia.
Clean Virginia, a 501(c)4 with an associated political action committee, seeks to “fight corruption in Virginia politics” to advance clean energy and “community control over our energy policy.” A 501(c)4 is like a nonprofit but with a greater ability to lobby, working with lawmakers to promote policies that support its causes.
Though attempts at campaign finance reform have repeatedly failed in the Legislature, Clean Virginia’s Deputy Director Cassidy Craighill still believes that comprehensive reform is needed in the commonwealth. But what’s most urgent, she says, is banning corporate contributions to campaigns altogether.
“It contributes to sort of a net loss for Virginia society when you have corporations running the show that much. When you have them able to give that much money, have that much access to lawmakers, unleash armies of lobbyists – that to me is what is most urgent,” Craighill told The Center Square.
Craighill sees an unacceptable conflict of interest between legislators able to receive large campaign donations from Dominion Energy and the company, the primary public utility in the state and one of the top donors in state elections. The General Assembly passes laws that direct the regulation of Dominion rates through the State Corporation Commission.
“The corporate ban should start with the companies that have the specific regulatory contract with the General Assembly, Dominion being the biggest example there,” Craighill said.
Virginia-based lawyer Jason Torchinsky, who specializes in campaign finance and election law, doesn’t see it that way. He thinks that allowing large donations helps legislators do their jobs better.
“When candidates have to raise in relatively low dollars, it requires them to gauge their message and situate their time such that they are kind of forced to almost fundraise full-time,” Torchinksky told The Center Square.
“Why do Congress members have to spend all day fundraising? Because they can only raise money in $3,300 chunks, and it costs a couple of million dollars to run even a remotely competitive congressional race.”
Adequate disclosure laws, the media and others that are eager to reveal political corruption are enough to keep the public informed, according to Torchinsky.
“When there are those really big donors, guess what? They make the news… When you have the big, stand-out donors in states that don’t have limits, those donors become part of the conversation,” Torchinsky said.
“There is a self-regulatory aspect to this because of the sunshine… Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”
Fundamentally, Torchinsky agrees with the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission that money is speech, and more restrictive campaign finance laws in Virginia would only interfere with that constitutionally protected freedom of expression.
Despite that, Craighill believes the need for reform at the state level persists.
“The constitutionality piece is certainly one we need to consider, but there are other ways [besides addressing corporate campaign contributions] that we can make sure that corporations’ free speech doesn’t trump everybody else’s,” Craighill said.
“In Virginia right now…corporations can have as much influence as they could possibly want, and that’s just not a fair Democratic system.”