As they prepared to take up roughly a dozen old complaints of illegal political mail or signs, members of the Virginia State Board of Elections complained Monday that they were flying blind because the state agency they oversee stopped offering guidance on whether the ads in question did or didn’t violate the law. The lack of staff analysis and recommendations, coupled with lengthy delays between when complaints come in and when they come up for review, left one board member openly wondering whether the state is doing enough to police political campaigns. Board members also raised concern about receiving limited details about the cases — many dating back to the November election and some over a year old — on Friday afternoon for a Monday morning meeting.
Officials from the Virginia Department of Elections told the board they chose to stop providing detailed memos outlining the facts of each potential violation, the relevant code section and recommendations for action because doing so would constitute legal advice on often hazy questions, such as whether a particular message amounts to “express advocacy.”
“Those are legal questions that we can’t answer,” said Elections Department Deputy Commissioner Elizabeth L. Howard.
In an email, Elections Commissioner Edgardo Cortés said his department has previously told the board that some issues would be better handled by the Attorney General’s Office, but said the change “probably could have been communicated better” before Monday’s meeting.