Post #272: A followup to the Town election

Posted on May 12, 2019

On these items, I don’t really know whether to laugh or cry about them.  But I think I’ll get them down, in black and white, before the memory of the election fades.   And I’ll preface this by saying how much I hate social media.

The Virginia Campaign Finance Disclosure Act (CFDA).

There are no laws governing campaign finance in Town of Vienna elections.  None whatsoever.  Anyone can give any amount of money to any candidate — and it doesn’t have to be reported anywhere. 

And I, for one, think that’s a problem. Particularly given (what I estimate to be) hundreds of millions of dollars of land use decisions that are going to made under MAC zoning.  And so I did a little something about that.  But most of you are going to need a little background information first, so you can understand what I did, and why.


  1.  Nobody ever believes me, the first time I tell them that no campaign finance laws apply here.  So if you just went “nah, that can’t be right”, when you read the intro to this section — well, you have plenty of company.
  2. I only found this out after considerable digging.  You won’t find this out easily, because if you ask the Town government, as I did, you’ll be told that the Town complies with all applicable sections of Virginia law governing elections.
  3. Here’s what you have to dig to find out:  The law doesn’t apply to Towns of under 25,000 population.  Virginia law (the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act of 2006) specifically exempts them.  Here’s a quote from the first part of the CFDA:
The provisions of this chapter shall apply to all elections held in Virginia, ... except nominations and elections for ... (iii) town office in a town with a population of less than 25,000, ....

There’s an interesting provision in the law, though.  A Town can voluntarily agree to be subject to the CFDA.  That provision is the following, from the same section of the law cited above:

The governing body of any town with a population of less than 25,000 may provide, by ordinance, that the provisions of this chapter shall be applicable to elections for town offices in the town.

This is exactly what the Town of Herndon, did, in 2011.  You can see that briefly mentioned at the next-to-last question on their election FAQ page.  And this .pdf of the actual ordinance shows how little it actually took for them to do that.

Herndon’s situation is different from the Town of Vienna, in that they were close to the 25,000 person threshold in the 2010 Census.  There was some sense that they would inevitably be subject to it after the 2020 Census.

You can read the Herndon Town Council’s discussion of the pros and cons of the e CFDA requirements around page 149 of this on-line document.  The reason I point to this is that you can be sure the exact same arguments will come up if this is ever debated in the Town of Vienna.

The main advantage is the law is transparency:  Everybody knows what’s spent, and where the money came from.  The main disadvantage is that it’s a pain to comply with it, because … you have to report what’s spent, and where the money came from.  And there are additional legal issues in that you have to acknowledge, in any campaign literature, where the money came from.

Which leads to my next section.

Political Action Committees (PACs)

PACs!  PACs, here in Vienna.  OMG, we’ve never seen PACs in Vienna before.  OMG, WE  HAVE PAC MONEY INFLUENCING OUR ELECTION!!!!!!!!!

Yeah, this is sarcasm.  Or very nearly.  Although, one of our elected officials did circulate this, as part of her get-out-the-vote effort:

"There are a few other websites, Facebook Pages, and blogs publicly available for this election, know that some are funded by a PAC that has also funded some of the candidates, so I would be a bit suspect on how balanced their information is. "

Here’s the joke:  I am the aforementioned PAC. As anyone who did even the slightest bit of homework on it would know.  Why would they know?  Because everything about every Virginia PAC is public information.

So, I am president, treasurer, chief cook and bottle washer for my own little PAC.   Now defunct.  Which is the PAC in question.  Total funding for that PAC was the whopping sum of $1000, which is the least it could be, and still be required to report as a PAC, under the Virginia CFDA.

So, in some sense, that sentence from the get-out-the-vote email is fair.  In the sense that I’ve certainly pointed out the bias in the Town’s information enough times.  So turnabout is fair play.  But the PAC scare tactics are just ill-informed or ill-intentioned or both.

Why did I bring the scourge of PACs to the Town of Vienna? Let me start by pointing to some of our neighboring Towns.

Take Leesburg, for example.  Nice little town.  Presumably they have an honest government.  But — look up the Mayor of Leesburg, and you will find — OMG, SHE HAS PAC!!!!!

But, take Herndon — surely our sister city to the west is free of that type of nonsense.  Let’s check out their mayor.  OMG, SHE HAS A PAC TOO!!!!!

Yes, that’s more sarcasm.  The fact is, PACs are how Virginia tracks campaign finances.  If you want to run for office, and you are subject to the CFDA, you have to form a PAC.  And you have to report where every donation (in excess of $200) comes from, and report every expense..  And even if you are not running for office, but want to spend money by directly trying to influence an election (as opposed to just giving a candidate money), then you, too, must form a PAC to do so.  And you must report every donation over $200, and every expense.

Because that’s how it works in Virginia. Under the CFDA, anyone can give anyone any amount of money as a campaign contribution, for a state or local (i.e., non-Federal) election.  There are absolutely no limits.  The only hitch is, it must all be rigorously tracked and reported, subject to severe penalties for mis-reporting.  And for those who independently seek to influence elections (“interest groups”), anything they publish has to note the name of the PAC of the interest group.  Once again, so that everybody knows where the money is coming from.

The reason we don’t have PACs in Vienna is that we’re not subject to the CFDA.  See the first part of this post.  And because of that — because  we’re not subject to it, and PACs are not required — nobody has the faintest real clue about sources and uses of campaign funds in Town elections.

I hope you get the drift here.  Anybody can give any amount to any state or local candidate in any Virginia election.  The only difference between Town of Vienna and other elections is that in the Town of Vienna, there’s no requirement to report any of that.

So, why did I form a PAC? The only real drawback of putting ourselves under the CFDA for Town elections, that I have seen mentioned, is that the requirement to form a PAC is burdensome.  I needed to know how burdensome it was, before I could make any sort of informed judgment. 

And my answer is, any fool can form a Virginia PAC.  And I’m proof of that.  It’s not burdensome.  The Commonwealth goes out of its way not to make it burdensome.  You don’t need a lawyer, you don’t need consultants.  All you have to do is go to the Virginia Department of Elections website and follow the directions.  Beyond a doubt, the hardest part of it was getting used to the logic of the Commonwealth’s COMET reporting system.

But I needed to know that, before I could write this post.  I needed to understand the burden issue before I could say, hey, I think we ought to put the Town under the Virginia CFDA.  Just for safety.  And now I know that PAC reporting burden is no big deal.  In fact, it’s easy enough that if the Town ever decides to put itself under the CFDA, I’ll volunteer to lead candidates through the process of forming a PAC.  It’s just not that hard.

All it takes is doing a little homework.