RICHMOND — Virginia Democrats are on their way to making it easier to vote in elections.
The newly empowered Democrats have made voting rights one of their top priorities this legislative session. And on Tuesday, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee advanced what is essentially early voting — permitting registered voters to vote absentee in any election without having to provide a reason for voting before Election Day.
The committee voted 11-4, with two Republicans joining the majority Democrats. The bill heads to the Senate floor.
Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, the patron of Senate Bill 111, said she started introducing an early voting bill more than a decade ago.
The Senate panel supported a few other campaign finance and voting bills, including SB 217 from Sen. David Suetterlein, which would require lawmakers and those holding statewide office to report contributions over $1,000 received during a period beginning Jan. 1 and ending the day before the first day of the regular session of the General Assembly.
Currently, contributions received in January of nonelection years don’t have to be disclosed until July 15, which is after the regular legislative session concludes and new laws take effect.
Suetterlein, a Republican from Roanoke County, said donations from people perhaps trying to influence state policy deserve scrutiny.
“That money may be used for purposes of Facebook advertising for legislation we might be doing, all sorts of things,” Suetterlein said.
Howell worried lawmakers already have their plates full with work they need to accomplish before the start of session, and this only adds to the load.
Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, said it’s important for the public to be aware of if donors are trying to buy lawmakers’ votes.
“It’s important for the people to know who dumps money into us,” Peake said.
The committee also backed Suetterlein’s SB 57 that would extend electronic campaign finance reporting to all boards of supervisors, city council and local constitutional offices in the commonwealth.
Some senators questioned whether it would be difficult for elected officials in rural localities without broadband to file electronically. Suetterlein said he didn’t think it was unreasonable to ask them to go to a library a few times a year to fill out the forms.
Also, he pointed out, he notices a lot of elected officials in small communities have social media accounts.
“These folks aren’t going to say they aren’t going to accept emails from constituents,” Suetterlein said.
The panel delayed voting on some campaign finance bills, including one proposal to cap contributions to General Assembly candidates to $2,500 by individuals and $5,000 for PACs and statewide candidates to $5,000 by individuals and $10,000 for PACs.
Peake didn’t think the bill was worded tightly enough to prevent donors from circumventing the limits by funneling it through other groups to get to a candidate.
The committee will also revisit a bill from Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, prohibiting candidates or campaign committees from accepting contributions from a public service corporation. But that was not before a debate broke out.
Petersen said he would be frank, that his bill is targeted at the two regulated electric utilities. Petersen has been a major critic of Dominion Energy, the largest corporate contributor in Virginia politics, which he said has been able to influence state policy to the detriment of residents.
“You’re putting this bill in because you have personal beef with Dominion and want us to share in your problem?” Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, asked.
“No,” Petersen responded.
Emily Little, a resident of Charlottesville, spoke in favor of the bill, saying it’s “hard to regulate somebody who gives you a lot of money.”
“If you think that some money’s going to buy some of these votes up here, you’re absolutely wrong,” said Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania.
Spruill asked Little if she thought money should be taken out of politics. Little said, “definitely.”
“Bless your heart, bless your heart,” Spruill said.