Joe Morrissey hit with $50 fine for improper sample ballots as state board looks to tighten oversight of political campaigns | Virginia

Virginia’s State Board of Elections slapped a $50 fine on former Richmond mayoral candidate Joe Morrissey Tuesday as the board worked to clear a backlog of election law complaints over improperly tagged advertisements and tardy finance reports.

The board acted on the eight-month old Morrissey complaint, filed by the Democratic Party of Virginia over sample ballots the party called a “flagrant and intentionally misleading violation,” and several others involving lesser-known political hopefuls. Rather than serving as punishment for the allegedly misleading nature of the fliers, the civil penalty stemmed from the failure to include a required disclaimer saying the ballots had come from the Morrissey campaign. 

Morrissey was not at the meeting and did not send a representative, but the print shop that created the ballots on his behalf sent a letter to the board taking responsibility for what it said was an “innocent mistake.”

To the board’s frustration, two complaints had to be dropped with no penalties because they were over a year old and the statute of limitations had expired, including an allegation of illegal yard signs in a state Senate race that Chesapeake Commonwealth’s Attorney Nancy G. Parr referred to the state.

“I’m somewhat annoyed with the way this process has gone,” said Singleton B. McAllister, one of two Democratic appointees to the three-person board.

At its last meeting in early May, board members were surprised when Department of Elections staff announced that the agency would stop giving the board advice on whether or not political ads that drew complaints violated the law. For Tuesday’s meeting, the board received staff recommendations for the 10 complaints on their agenda, but were taken aback when they realized a key elections policy analyst was not at the meeting to advise the board.

With another frenzied electoral season coming up ahead of November’s statewide elections for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general and elections for all 100 House of Delegates seats, the board suggested several ways to tighten the seemingly slack process for acting on alleged campaign violations.

Board members instructed the elections department to send over all complaints within one week of receiving them to let the board review them in “real time” rather than waiting until long after an election. The board also intends to expand its regulatory definition of “express advocacy” to cover a broader range of politically motivated advertising, not just material that includes an explicit call to elect or defeat a candidate.

The Morrissey complaint, made against one of Virginia’s most colorful politicians in a tightly contested mayoral race in the state capital, presented a high-profile test of how elections officials enforce campaign rules.

The elections board considered a $100 fine for Morrissey, but Chairman James B. Alcorn pointed to the print shop’s letter and said the board typically drops fines to $50 if a violator makes an effort to explain. Fines can add up fast for repeat offenders. In one case Tuesday, the board assessed penalties of nearly $3,000.

In the closing weeks of last year’s mayoral race, Morrissey’s campaign sent envelopes to 35,000 Richmond residents containing a mass-produced handwritten note and a piece of paper labeled “Democratic Party sample ballot.” The ballot listed his name along with presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and then-congressional candidate A. Donald McEachin. At the time, the Morrissey campaign said the label was supposed to read “Progressive Democratic Party” but the printer acted unilaterally to remove the word “progressive.”

The actual Democratic-endorsed candidate was the eventual victor, current Mayor Levar Stoney. The party complained to the state in early November.

Morrissey said the $50 fine shows that the board realized what occurred was a “sincere mistake.”

“I’m ultimately responsible,” Morrissey said. “We respect their decision and I’ll pay the fine.”

In the letter to the board, Morrissey’s printing vendor said the campaign did not have a chance to review and correct the mailers before they went out.

“I am mortified that my company’s error resulted in ongoing problems for my client, and that the work was not compliant with the election laws of the commonwealth of Virginia,” Nathaniel Withers, president of Wythken Printing, wrote in the letter defending Morrissey. “I assure you that this was an innocent mistake made by a well-meaning employee under a difficult deadline, and was in no way a deliberate attempt at deception.”

Regardless of who failed to include the disclaimer, Alcorn said, campaigns are still responsible for any material they send out.

“I’m willing to accept it is an explanation,” Alcorn said. “It’s not the best explanation. It’s not the best excuse. But from my perspective, it’s at least an acknowledgement that something went wrong as opposed to not even responding.”

Democratic Party of Virginia Chairwoman Susan Swecker was a little less forgiving.

“You can always count on Joe Morrissey to conjure up some alternative facts to weasel his way out of accountability,” Swecker said.

Morrissey responded: “I would expect that the chairperson of the state Democratic Party would have more to do than engage in mean-spirited, petty, churlish and petulant remarks. And I simply wish her well.”

The elections board also voted to assess a $100 fine on Richmond City Councilwoman Ellen Robertson for an election-season mailer touting her achievements while representing the city’s 6th District. Department of Elections staff recommended no fine because the Robertson mailer did not expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate. The board overruled that advice, pointing to a sticker on the envelope that said “Re-elect Ellen Robertson.”