Commentary, Guest Commentary

Guest Commentary: Local Campaign Finance Tracking: How to Get It Right

By John D. Lawrence

I’m sure most of you have seen that the candidates in this year’s races have signed a pledge saying they’ll try to raise their money within the City to the greatest extent possible.  Keeping local elections local is a great idea and I’m glad Citizens for a Better City and the League of Women Voters (among others) worked on this pledge.  But this pledge is, let’s be honest, totally unenforceable.  The only reward/punishment for candidates will be if adherence or not to the pledge affects people’s votes. 

That means constant, complete, and transparent reporting by the CBC/LWV.

We don’t need a local organization saying, “This is our assessment related to the pledge, trust us” just before the election.  What’s needed  — and what can be done easily – is complete transparency and honest assessments of what’s known and unknown for campaign reporting on a consistent basis as reports are filed. That’s the only way any assessment can be believable.  (Note: I sent some of my concerns to the CBC and was emailed a link to their FAQs which didn’t address my concerns.)

Let’s start with definitions.  Candidates have regular campaign reports easily accessed through the Virginia Department of Elections (  “Itemized” donations are aggregated totals from one person of more than $100.  “Unitemized” donations are $100 and below.  For Itemized donations, candidates report the donor’s name, address, occupation, amount, and date of donation.  For Unitemized donations, amounts are lumped together as a total with no names.  But candidates must collect all the same information as for Itemized donations because if someone makes multiple donations that total more than $100 then every donation they’ve made needs to be reported.

As a former candidate, I know that campaign finance reporting is both vital and a pain in the neck.  It just is.  You’d rather spend the time campaigning.  Willingness to sign the pledge is great, but we have some limitations.  For donations from outside the City, I don’t think we can expect candidates to explain a $120 donation with a notation of “This is my college roommate.”  It’s unreasonable and unverifiable

We just need three simple donation categories:  Inside FC, Outside FC, and Unknown.  For itemized donations, a full address is required, which is key since only 22046 is solely inside the City.  

What about unitemized donations?  Frankly, just admit the Unknowns.  As I said, these are lumped together with no name/address/individual amount.  So there’s no way to know what – if any – of these amounts fall within the city.  

These unknowns can be significant.  

In one report, a 2021 candidate listed $2,950 in Itemized donations with $1,000 of those from outside the city and $1,600 Unitemized.  This report should be assessed as 43 percent Inside FC, 22 percent Outside FC, and 35 percent Unknown.

Another 2021 candidate, over three reports totaling almost $25,000, listed $5,600 in unitemized donations – almost 23 percent.

One 2019 candidate, who’s running again, filed a report listing $4,341 in donations with $4,120 of those Unitemized – i.e., no names listed.  That’s 95 percent of one report that’s unknown. 

People should just know how much is unknown about where donations come from and can factor that into their decision-making as they see fit.

Candidates could fix the Unknown if they want by reporting all donations no matter the size because they have the details.  If they can’t do this with Virginia, they can publish it on their websites.  However, not doing it would be totally understandable since it would be a bigger pain in the neck.  They can live with having a certain percentage of their donations listed as Unknown.  

The CBC/LWV should also focus on timeliness.  If someone misses a reporting date, just note that so there’s no impression that the publicly listed donations are current.  Late filing sometimes happens which is why amendments are allowed.  And track reports after the election.  In 2021, a month after the election, one winning candidate filed an amendment to the last pre-election report (requiring all donations prior to Oct. 21), including another $1,100 received on Oct. 20.  Don’t stop watching just because the election was called.  

True transparency in local campaign finance could also prove interesting.  How many people know we have multiple individuals who give multiple four-figure donations regularly? How about that a “local” PAC made four-figure donations to multiple candidates in 2021?  I say “local” because it’s listed with a City address, but almost half the PAC donors are unlisted because the donations were $100/under.

To make any assessment of this pledge believable, the CBC/LWV and the News Press should: Publish all donations on a public website, list totals (and percentages) for Inside FC, Outside FC, and Unknown, note any anomalies such as missed reporting dates.

This pledge only matters if voters have the full information to inform their vote.

John D. Lawrence served more than 18 years on Falls Church boards and commissions including the Library Board of Trustees, the Planning Commission, and the School Board.