Category Archives: Electoral process

For Your Viewing Pleasure: Television Ad Spending Now Online

Source: Virginia Public Access Project

The Virginia Public Access Project has begun publishing this campaign season a new data set for Virginia congressional elections — television ad spending. You can view total spending for the campaign to date, as I show here with the hotly contested Comstock/Wexton and Brat/Spanberger races. Or, if you’re a total junky, you can check the weekly updates.

The biggest-spending race involves 10th district Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock and her Democratic challenger, Jennifer Wexton. To reach 10th district voters, advertisers have to buy air time in the super-expensive Washington media market. It is interesting to note that more money has been spent on television advertising than the campaigns have reported raising. That’s because most of the ads are being purchased by outside, non-campaign-affiliated groups — just one more way that big money can influence politics by means other than donating to political campaigns directly.

Thank you, VPAP, for this making available enhanced contribution to campaign-finance transparency.

The second most expensive race is the Senate contest between Democratic incumbent Tim Kaine and Republican challenger Corey Stewart. From a money perspective, that campaign is a joke. Kaine has spent $4.2 million so far on television ads (all his own campaign’s money) versus 0 for Stewart. That’s not a contest, it’s a stomping. Like President Trump whom he emulates, Stewart is the non-Establishment candidate — and his pitiful fund-raising record shows it. But he lacks candidate Trump’s knack for generating unlimited free air time and press coverage. Only his more reckless and indefensible statements generate attention. Stewart is more doomed than the Titanic.

Then there’s the 2nd congressional campaign in my back door between Republican incumbent Dave Brat, who famously upset House Majority Leader Eric Cantor a few years back, and his Democratic challenger Abigail Spanberger. Spanberger has spent more money on television advertising overall than Brat, all of it coming from her own campaign resources. But Brat and anti-Spanberger groups have come on strong in recent weeks.

While the VPAP data adds a new dimension to campaign analysis, it leaves unanswered an increasingly relevant question: How effective is television advertising? Campaigns and outside groups spend massive sums, but in the age of Social Media it’s not at all clear that the ads move voters.

The conventional wisdom is that attack ads are more effective than positive ads. But I think that positive ads can be useful in building name recognition for a new, unknown candidate. As for attack ads, I ignore them or discount them entirely. Any time I see an attack ad, I don’t gasp, thinking, how could candidate X have done or said such a thing? Rather, I ask myself, “How is this ad distorting the truth or omitting context?” I suspect most other voters do the same.

Source: Virginia Public Access Project

Oh, The Tangled Webs We Weave

Before President Frank Underwood there was P.M. Francis Urquhart. He was not amused by amateurs.

Let’s not and say we did.

If I had a dollar for every time I said that to some over-enthusiastic campaign worker for my candidate or some other one with some wild idea to screw with the other side….

Perhaps GOP Congressman Scott Taylor should have used the phrase, or my other favorite:  Don’t do anything you don’t want to read about in the newspaper.

Now we are being subjected to a daily barrage of stories about how the Second District representative’s campaign staff circulated the petitions to get independent challenger Shaun Brown on the November ballot.  After Brown lost the Democratic nomination and went away mad, it was logical to keep her candidacy alive as a thorn in the side of Democratic nominee Elaine Luria.

Some Taylor fan passed Brown’s petitions around the office of fellow Republican and Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle gathering a large number of signatures, earning this story in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch.

My personal practice has always been to sign most candidates’ petitions, if I’m a qualified voter in the correct district.  It is not a pledge to vote for that person.  I’ve signed for many a Democrat, independent or Green.  Having been the person circulating the petitions I know it is a hard process, and as a believer in our election system I support people’s efforts to run.

There is also a long history of both parties’ finding and encouraging independent candidates intended to split the opponent’s vote.  Everybody does it, but usually with plausible deniability.  Well, that’s out the window in this case.

If the petitions for Luria were signed by enough properly-registered voters in that district, even if they were active Republicans, serving sheriff’s deputies, or known cranks, she might remain on the ballot.  If not one actual Democrat signed, it matters not.

If those circulating the petitions witnessed and attested to the signatures of false names, or the names of deceased persons, or filled in names themselves, they should face the full consequences under the law – which are considerable.  Doing that will have brought dishonor on themselves, their candidate and the process itself.

Whether all of this will hurt Taylor and boost Luria come November is impossible to say now, but it is the kind of distraction which is never good for any campaign.  At some point well before this got out of hand somebody in authority should have sat back, laughed, and said – let’s not actually do this, folks.  And if the decision was to go forward anyway, the mantra should have been – break absolutely no rules and smile and deny nothing when caught.

Now The House of Delegates Map Must Change

VPAP map showing 11 districts rejected by the court this week, and others likely to change along with them. An interactive version is linked.

The predominant consideration in a legislator’s mind in any effort to draw legislative districts is first, will I get re-elected and second, will enough of my friends get elected or re-elected so we can form a gang and control this place?  The third consideration is can we get this plan signed by the governor and (in Virginia) get it approved by the federal guardians of the Voting Rights Act?

Compactness, contiguity, community of interest – a strong stand in favor of those works well in campaign speeches. Close the doors and turn on the mapping software, however, and they’re back to numbers one, two and three. The third consideration, federal approval, may now leap to number one.

No piece of legislation has been more important to the rise of the Republican Party in the Old South than the Voting Rights Act, because with the creation of every “minority-majority district” the surrounding districts also change demographically. The South’s (and not just the South, by the way) racist efforts to suppress African-American registration and to draw districts that cracked, stacked and packed them to further dilute their political power brought a just and powerful retribution. The impact on black representation was strong and immediate, but so were the corollary benefits for Republicans.

In 1991 the Republicans were the minority in the Virginia House and were victims of a gerrymander. The only effective challenge put up was a GOP complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice involving the House seat then held by the late C. Hardaway Marks of Hopewell, parts of which could have been used to create a new minority-majority district next door. It was so ordered and Marks’ seat went red.

The 1991 plans on both sides created substantially more black majority districts and were the first legislative plans to maximize Section 5 compliance as then interpreted. Within a decade the GOP controlled both chambers. There were many reasons but the Voting Rights Act played a role.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. Judicial interpretation of Section 5 of that federal law is changing. A couple of years ago a federal court redrew Virginia’s congressional seats, effectively replacing Republican Randy Forbes with Democrat Donald McEachin. Now comes a 2-1 U.S. District Court ruling that as many as 33 of 100 House of Delegates seats need to be redrafted because the Republican mapmakers used a fixed 55 percent minimum for the black voting age population (BVAP) in 11 specific districts held by Democrats. The one-seat GOP majority in the House is now even more tenuous. (VPAP has done a marvelous map and the interactive version is here.)

The opinion and the dissent run to 188 pages, but the parts of the majority decision I read boil down to these sentences: “The state has sorted voters into districts based on the color of their skin” and speaking of the consultant used by the GOP: “Insofar as he sought to obtain partisan political advantage by splitting (precincts) in particular ways, he did so by relying on race as a proxy for political preference.”

Given the black voting patterns these days, which may be even more set in stone now than 40 years ago, it is hard not to see that as proxy. What has changed in 40 years is white voting patterns.

Since the initial passage of the Voting Rights Act, Virginia has elected one African-American governor, has twice elected an African-American lieutenant governor, and has twice voted for an African-American for president. The justification for the Voting Rights Act Section 5 requirements in the first place was a strong pattern of racial voting among white voters, strong enough that no black candidate stood a chance unless the district was tailored for his or her success. That is not today’s Virginia.

The ground was already shaky under that foundation by 1991, with Governor Douglas Wilder on the Third Floor and then-state Senator Bobby Scott of Newport News winning in a 65 percent white district. Neither Scott nor Wilder passed on the chance to demand 1991 plans with more minority-majority districts, however, and Republicans in the Senate cooperated with that desire and negotiated a map equally beneficial to them.

Reading the new district court majority opinion, the presumption that African-American candidates need that demographic boost still binds the action of the legislature, and the plan adopted certainly provided it. The problem was uniform reliance on that 55 percent minimum target, which was chosen after careful analysis of the voting patterns in just one legislative district – the rural Southside district held by Del. Roslyn Tyler of Jarrett.

The court accepted the arguments of the plaintiffs that every district needed its own analysis, and many could produce a district open to a black candidate winning with far less than a 55 percent BVAP. It noted that the Tyler district’s results were skewed by the presence of large non-voting prison populations, and by the fiercest pattern in the state of racial pattern voting by its white citizens.  The mandate to the General Assembly is go back and reevaluate all 11 other districts individually, change their lines and those of surrounding districts, and get it done by Halloween.

What wonderful timing for Democrats defending their U.S. Senate seat against a GOP challenger who might have interesting comments to make on the role of federal courts and the wisdom of the Voting Rights Act. That mandate and deadline will be appealed but now that is complicated by the coming period of a 4-4 Supreme Court until a new justice is approved and sworn.

Odds are very good this ruling will stand and the General Assembly will have a new House map for the 2019 election containing several Republican-held districts with higher numbers of African-American voters. Permissible “proxy” or not, the partisan impact is predictable.

Maps that Should Terrify Republicans

Building on Don’s post from earlier this morning (“Does the RPV have the guts to scuttle the GA?”), I would add to the list of fundamental changes Republicans should seek to enact before they lose control of the General Assembly  — redistricting reform.

Here’s what Virginia’s congressional districts look like now after Republican gerrymandering, according to the FiveThirtyEight blog Atlas of Redistricting: Five Republican-leaning districts, four Democratic-leaning districts, and two swing districts.

Here’s what the congressional map would look like after the districts are gerrymandered to favor Democrats: Seven Democrat-leaning districts and four Republican-leaning districts.


And here’s what the districts would look like if drawn to be geographically compact without favoring either party: three Republican-leaning districts, three Democratic-leaning districts, and five competitive districts.


What are the chances of seeing something resembling the third map? About zero. Republicans will cling to the hope that they can miraculously hold on to a General Assembly majority and control of the redistricting process. Democrats smell blood in the water, and they will be satisfied with nothing less than the second map.

As always, Virginia will remain a state where politicians pick their voters, not a state where voters pick their politicians.

Aunt Virginia Needs You (As An Election Officer)

The EPB! (Electronic Poll Book)

One of the sheets of paper taped on the wall in Richmond’s Maple Avenue Fire Station Tuesday was a recruiting poster seeking additional qualified people to become “one of the elite!”  Not Marines, not Green Berets or fire fighters – election officers.  Uncle Sam and Aunt Virginia need you for this job, too.

The various disputes in House of Delegates races last fall reminded me that I had always wanted to try working inside the polls.  For many years I was doing precinct work on the outside, taking care of the GOP signs and giving voters a handout or final harangue, and sometimes I watched the count process as a party observer.  That’s not happening in the Age of Trump so I wanted another way to get involved.

This year brought some certainty that I could keep the days of the primary and general elections free, so Tuesday at five a.m. I stumbled into the firehouse for my rookie effort.  Given it was an abysmal-turnout primary (GOP ballot only in Richmond) and the voters would be few and far between, it was a perfect practice run.  A few general observations:

First, I really would encourage you to try this assuming you are up to a 15-16 hour day with a good bit of time on your feet.  It is vital that people who respect the election process are conducting it, because it is still very hands-on and open to error.

Second, somebody needs to put in a bill that gives local electoral boards full powers of eminent domain for election days.  Finding the right locations with sufficient parking is also important as long as we continue one-day, in-person voting.   Yours truly failed in his morning mission of protecting a few parking spaces in the nearby public lot as reserved for voters, and suddenly there was only one space open.  I chased many non-voters out of it.  I’m semi-serious that a short term grant of eminent domain might help secure locations and parking.

Third, changing precinct lines should be hard to do and happen very seldom.  It breeds great confusion, and we had scores of voters complaining “but I’ve always voted here!” and “I never saw any notice!” when they were turned away.  The new electronic poll books automatically generate actual driving directions to the correct polling place, printed on a slip to hand to the unhappy voter.  That helps.

Fourth, it’s amazing how many voters remain unaware of which candidates match their districts.  That part of Richmond used to be in the Seventh Congressional District, Dave Brat’s district, and a few years ago was moved by court order to the Fourth District, now represented by Donald McEachin.  We had another subset of voters, larger than the group coming to the wrong poll, who wanted to vote in the Seventh District Democratic primary.  Some got all the way checked in before realizing they didn’t want to vote in the GOP primary.

This problem is on the voters, and to some extent on the parties who could consider at least one pre-election mailing to each registered household with that basic information.  We started stressing to people at the door that our precinct had no Democratic primary.  It will happen again in November because of the spirited race coming in that neighboring district.

Electronic poll books, paper ballots that are automatically assessed and counted by the voting machine, a new machine for the visually impaired which we didn’t need – the technology is great, but at the end of the day civility and humor and patience keep the flow moving and human eyes need to confirm that the person standing there is indeed who they say they are, and that the numbers on the poll books, on the paper ballot tally, and on the voting machine all balance.  We check every 15 minutes.

It was a breeze Tuesday.  When five or six times that many voters come in November, it will be more problematic.  Think about joining us.

A Non-Partisan Election Reform: Shorter Lines

Here’s an idea for election reform that everyone should be comfortable with: reducing the time voters spend in line at the polls.

In 2014 a bi-partisan Presidential Commission on Electoral Administration called on state and local officials to ensure that voters wait no more than 30 minutes to cast a ballot. As a voter who spent an hour or more waiting in line in the 2016 election, I would greatly appreciate any effort to cut the logjam.

Writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, John Fortier and Donald Palmer with the Bipartisan Policy Center describe a nationwide study in 2016 of election lines. That study encompassed 17 Virginia jurisdictions representing more than 2 million registered voters, or nearly 40 percent of all registered voters in the state.

Our data shows that more than 80 percent of Election Day lines in Virginia occur before noon. Moreover, we found that steps taken by Virginia officials after the 2012 and 2014 elections to allocate resources more effectively did decrease the average wait times at the polls. In 2016, Virginia voters waited an average of less than nine minutes to vote — down dramatically from 24 minutes in 2012 and 28 minutes in 2008. This decrease is one of the largest in the country.

When equipped with the right data, local officials can make smart and informed choices about where and when to deploy resources on Election Day, designing a structure that works best for their unique situations. Until now, however, those officials were flying blind with little to no data to guide or back up decision-making.

It’s nice to know that our election officials are doing something right. I’m looking forward to a snappy, nine-minute wait in the gubernatorial election this fall.

You Either Want to Change the System or You Don’t

Tom Perez and Michael Steele

by Brian Cannon

On a recent panel at the Aspen Institute (starting at 51:30), Tom Perez (DNC Chair) and Michael Steele (former RNC Chair) touched on the issue of redistricting reform. Perez said one of the most important things we need to do is engage in redistricting reform. Steele agreed. He also applauded Governor Larry Hogan’s (R-MD) efforts to create a new redistricting system in Maryland. In doing so, Steele made the salient point that Perez and those in the audience should also get behind the Maryland efforts on reform. “You either want to change the system or you don’t.”

Amen. Talking about North Carolina’s need for redistricting reform but leaving out Maryland’s should raise everyone’s suspicions. Steele nailed it, and we should all listen carefully.

This sounds a bit like Governor Jon Inslee (D-WA) remarking that America needs redistricting reform on Pod Save America (at 38:10). He started out so well. Gov. “Stop gerrymandering,” Inslee said. “Start giving people adequate representation in districts.” But then he had to finish with this:  “the key to stop gerrymandering is to elect Democratic governors as soon as we can.”

What?! The idea that this issue is partisan is laughable. It’s about power and whether the people are loud enough to take that power back from the incumbents – whether from Democrats in Maryland, Republicans in North Carolina, or, as in Virginia in 2011, from both parties. No party has a monopoly on virtue here.

As Steele said, governors around the country are pushing for redistricting reform, but the efforts of Republicans Kasich and Hogan are just as worthy as those of Democrats Inslee and McAuliffe. The R or D next to their name doesn’t change a thing.

Michael Steele is right — you’re either for reform or you’re not. Perez is right that the system is so broken that there is no incentive for either side to come to the middle. But you can’t be for reforming that system in North Carolina but not in Maryland. That’s hypocritical. Voters can sense this, too.

Brian Cannon is executive director of OneVirginia2021.

Final Count: 5,556 Non-Citizens Registered to Vote in Virginia

The Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) and Virginia Voters Alliance have uncovered documentary evidence that at least 5,556 non-citizens have been illegally registered to vote in Virginia since 2011, and that 1,852 of them cast 7,474 ballots before election officials canceled their registrations.

Those numbers are considerably higher than figures provided in a study last year based upon inquiries into eight jurisdictions. This updated study, “Alien Invasion II,” reflects registration and voting patterns for all cities and counties.

These numbers don’t reflect all voting by non-citizens, just those who were identified by city and county registrars. Under the Motor Voter law, it is illegal but easy for non-citizens to register to vote, and registrars make little effort to weed them out. The 5,556 non-citizens stricken from the rolls were self-reported.

PILF claims to have overcome massive obstructionism to acquire the data for all Virginia localities. Its inquiries have found zero interest by local commonwealth attorneys to prosecute individuals who voted illegally, and Governor Terry McAuliffe has vetoed two bills designed to address the problem of voting non-citizens. It is mind-bending that Virginia news outlets have show so little interest in this problem. It’s almost as if there was… nah, it couldn’t be… rampant media bias.

Tom Perriello — the Radical Chic Candidate

George Soros

After Virginia gubernatorial candidates filed their campaign finance updates yesterday, all eyes turned to Democratic Party candidate Tom Perriello. The progressive populist, who decries the role of big money in politics, was himself the largest beneficiary of big money of the six announced candidates.

The Perriello campaign pocketed $385,000 from hedge fund billionaire George Soros and two sons, as well as $230,000 from Avaaz, a global activist organization that Perriello co-founded.

Perhaps of greater interest is the large stash raised from Charlottesville, Perriello’s hometown. Never in all my years as an observer of Virginia politics have I seen such large contributions bubble forth from the People’s Republic. Whether this gusher of campaign contributions portends an inflection point in Virginia politics, I don’t know. But it is remarkable.

Here is a list of Perriello’s top donors, with details added from a couple of hour’s worth of Googling:

Sonjia Smith — $500,000. A University of Virginia graduate and Charlottesville resident, Smith is married to hedge fund manager Michael D. Bills, founder of Bluestem Asset Management. In a Roanoke Times column explaining why she supports Perriello, she described herself as a “single-issue voter” on the issue of women’s reproductive rights. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, she had donated $968,000 to Democratic candidates in Virginia through 2016 before stroking the big check to Perriello.

George Soros — $250,000. New Yorker, hedge fund manager, chairman of the Open Society Foundations, and prolific funder of progressive causes.

Avaaz –$230,000. Global, not-for-profit activist group.

Alexander Soros — $125,000. Alexander Soros, son of multibillionaire George Soros, is a New York philanthropist who promotes social justice and human rights causes.

Courtney C. Smith — $75,000. ???

Stephen Silberstein — $50,000. Northern Virginia semiconductor executive.

Christopher Weitz — $25,000. There is a Christopher Weitz who is a New York-born film producer and screen writer. I’m not certain he is one and the same as the donor to Perriello’s campaign.

John Grisham — $25,000. Best-selling author and supporter of progressive causes who lives in the Charlottesville area.

Margaret Gupta — $25,000. Gupta is married to Shashikant Gupta, CEO of Apex CoVantage, a Herndon technology firm. Co-founder of the Gupta Family Foundation, she says that Apex should be “an agent of positive social change.”

Timothy Chapman — $25,000. Chapman heads Reston-based Chapman Development LLC, a developer of affordable housing projects.

Dario O Marquez — $20,000. A former member of the Secret Service, Marquez is co-founder of MNM Inc., an Ashburn-based private security contractor.

Lilly Bechtel — $10,000. Charlottesville yoga instructor, writer and musician.

Kay Leigh Ferguson — $10,000. Ferguson is director of Charlottesville’s Madwoman Project, which produces avant garde theater performances.

Roberta B. Williamson — $10,000. Charlottesville resident. Major donor to Democratic Party candidates.

Stanislav Reisky de Dubnic — $10,000. Reisky de Dubnic is a principal in Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy.

Peter Devine — $10,000. ???

David J. Matthews — $10,000. Famed Charlottesville musician.

Jonathan T. Allan Soros — $10,000. Son of George Soros, CEO of New York-based JS Capital Management, and prominent donor to progressive causes.

Laura DeBonis — $10,000. ???

The picture that emerges here is a candidate whose financial support comes overwhelmingly from progressive communities in New York, Northern Virginia and above all Charlottesville. Among big-check donors, he appears to have zero support outside those areas. From his advocacy of a $15 minimum wage and free community college to his support of renewable energy and attacks on electric utilities, he is all on board with the green/social justice agenda. Virginia has never seen a serious statewide candidate like this before.

As Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Jeff Schapiro observes, “Perriello’s candidacy, much like McAuliffe’s losing bid in 2009, is top-down. It is a lot of drama, magnified by millennial-specific social media and cable news breathlessness, intended to capture the votes of Virginians not necessarily active in Democratic politics but absolutely agitated by Donald Trump.”

Hypocrisy alert. Perriello has staked out a position as a pro-green, anti-Dominion candidate opposed to interstate pipelines transporting fracked gas through Virginia. Yet he has accepted $250,000 from George Soros, whose Soros Fund Management in 2016 had holdings in 11 oil and gas companies. Should he return Soros’ money? Should he insist that Soros divest himself of his oil and gas assets? Are his support of renewables and attacks on power companies sincere or opportunistic?

When Registered Voters Outnumber Voting-Age Citizens

Time for a closer look at the number of registered voters in Virginia.

Time for a closer look at the number of registered voters in Virginia. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot

Eight localities in Virginia have more registered voters than voting-age citizens, and in another 15 localities registered voters amount to 95% of the voting-age citizens. Sound funny to you?

SB 1105, authored by state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and approved by the Senate, would require registrars to look into the data whenever the ratio exceeds 100%.

America is a mobile country. People move between localities and states frequently. While voters typically think to register in a new locality, I doubt it occurs to them to inform registrars in their former localities that they have departed. Speaking for myself, I would expect registrars to exchange information with each other and figure this out for themselves. But it appears that the administrative systems of some registrars offices are ill equipped to keep up with the population flux. If thousands of people across Virginia are improperly registered in multiple localities, that creates the potential for abuse by unscrupulous individuals.

(Some say that fraudulent voting occurs infrequently, so what’s the point in worrying about it. I would respond this way: We don’t know that it occurs infrequently, only that registrars have no systems in place to determine whether illegal voting is occurring, and that in instances where discrepancies have been reported to local authorities, commonwealth attorneys have shown little interest in prosecuting them.)

Speaking as a citizen, I don’t think it’s too much to ask registrars, perhaps with the assistance of the state, to put processes into effect that systematically update voter rolls for deaths, address changes and improper registration by noncitizens.

By the way, another Obenshain bill would require the periodic audit of voting machines, and a third asks registrars to adopt electronic pollbooks that allow them to match voters’ photo IDs to DMV identification records.