by Brandon Jarvis

A bill that would require independent expenditure reports to be filed electronically is being heard in a House subcommittee this week. Currently, the law allows for expenditure reports to be filed by paper, making it difficult for the public to view – preventing transparency, advocates of the bill say. 

Independent expenditures in elections are the funds spent by groups not associated with campaigns advocating for a candidate or issue. The groups are not legally allowed to communicate with the campaign about the money they spend on these issues.  

Current law allows independent expenditures to be filed electronically. However, there is no mechanism for groups to file electronically; they are typically faxed to the Department of Elections. 

“I filed HB 730 to promote transparency and public confidence in our campaign finance system,” said Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax), the sponsor of the bill in the House of Delegates. “With an increase in spending on elections each cycle, it is important that the public has an easily accessible way of searching for these reports, and for non-partisan non-profit organizations like VPAP to make the data even more user-friendly. Independent Expenditure groups are one of (if not the only) category of organizations that are required to file campaign finance reports, but are unable to file electronically.”

Advocates for the bill believe this was a forgotten issue when Virginia made changes to the campaign finance system years ago. 

“I think this is a missing piece of Virginia’s electronic filing,” said David Poole, the founder of Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP). He retired from his position as executive director last year.

VPAP is a useful tool used by anyone involved with Virginia politics to track money for campaigns and politicians. 

“This independent expenditure piece was kind of forgotten about 20 years ago when the real effort was made to digitize campaign finance,” Poole said.   

“It just makes so much sense to make everything available electronically,” he continued. “I think the biggest impact would be on local elections. Fortunately, VPAP gets copies of independent expenditures for state elections, but the local stuff is just sent in by fax and filed away in file cabinets and no one ever sees them. So no one ever knows what is being sent and by whom in some of these races.” 

Poole worries that groups can spend money without the public knowing, giving them a large influence in local races across the commonwealth. 

“In some of these small races, well-organized groups from the outside can have an outsized impact on the outcome of a local school board race or a local supervisors race,” he said. “This would give the public the ability to understand what groups are seeking to influence our elections and right now they’re not even aware of what’s happening for the most part.”  

Sen. Russett Perry (D-Loudoun) filed the companion bill and says she is sponsoring the legislation because she ran on a platform of transparency and accountability last year. She also noted the large increase in indenture expenditures over the last four years.  

“It was brought to my attention that independent expenditures are the only expenditures that are not required (or able) to be filed electronically,” she said Tuesday. “These expenditures, usually mail or digital ads, are made by individuals and increased four-fold from 2019 to 2023 to $5.9 million. This legislation will make sure that the public have the same access to who is funding these ads and making these individual contributions that they have access to for every other campaign committee in the commonwealth, at both the local and state level. I ran on a platform of transparency and accountability, and that’s exactly what this is.”

The bill is expected to be heard in the House Privileges and Elections Subcommittee Wednesday morning.

By vascope