The Virginia Public Access Project grew out of a joint effort by the state's five largest newspapers to track campaign contributions.
The effort was vital because Virginia is one of a handful of states with no contribution limits. Anything goes - as long as candidates identify donors who give more than $100. The system was built upon the premise that by making donor information public, candidates will police themselves to avoid the perception that they are beholden to one particular donor or to donors in general. The flaw, of course, was the public had no meaningful access to the information contained in disclosure reports, which at the time were crammed in file cabinets at the State Board of Elections.
In 1997, David Poole took a leave of absence from his job as a political reporter for The Roanoke Times to build a campaign finance database for the newspapers. Poole envisioned transforming the database into a public resource that would provide meaningful public access. Poole recruited a Board of Directors who shared his vision, and VPAP was incorporated in April 1997.
VPAP transformed campaign finance disclosure in Virginia. Over the years, VPAP has expanded its mission to connect Virginians with nonpartisan information about politics.
Key Dates in VPAP History
- January 1997: The VPAP Board of Directors holds its initial organizational meeting. Jim Beamer is elected chairman.
- April 1997: VPAP opens an office at the VCU Center for Public Policy, its initial partner in providing data to a consortium of newspapers.
- June 1997: VPAP goes online with a searchable database of campaign donors to legislative and statewide candidates.
- September 1997: The Internal Revenue Service grants VPAP status as a 501(c)3 charity.
- November 1997: Newspaper consortium agrees to extend funding through 1999 elections.
- Spring 1999: VPAP helps the State Board of Elections launch VAFiling, software that lets candidates e-file campaign finance disclosure reports.
- January 2000: VPAP expands its database to include expenditures.
- April 2000: VPAP and VCU mutually agree to end partnership; VPAP moves to one-room office in downtown Richmond.
- January 2001: VPAP expands its database to include gifts.
- Fall 2002: VPAP coordinates voluntary disclosure of money raised and spent by groups involved in regional sales-tax and statewide bond referendums.
- Fall 2003: VPAP posts its first set of local data - contributions to candidates for the Board of Supervisors and Chairman in three counties: Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William.
- November 2004: VPAP doubles its staff by hiring a second full-time employee.
- Summer 2005: VPAP expands database to include donors to PACs that e-file with State Board of Elections.
- September 2005: VPAP launches dynamic maps that visually display donations to statewide candidates from each locality.
- November 2006: VPAP expands database to include personal financial holding disclosures filed by General Assembly candidates.
- January 2007: VPAP expands database to include list of registered lobbyists.
- April 2007: VPAP announces initiative to expand transparency in local elections.
- May 2007: VPAP offers maps that plot donations at the ZIP Code level.
- May 2008: VPAP launches new website, completing six-month process of redesigning its database and computer systems.
- Spring 2011: VPAP provides transparency to redistricting process, including maps that make it easy to see the shift in district boundaries.
- June 2011: VPAP assumes responsibility for daily news clipping service started in 1996 by Tom Whipple of Arlington.
- November 2012 - VPAP partners with George Mason University to create "After Virginia Votes," a look back at the 2012 U.S. Senate race between Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine.
- April 2013 - VPAP changes name of clipping service to "VaNews" and introduces newsboy mascot.
- Summer 2013 - VPAP adopts new criteria for VPAP Sunshine Caucus that encourage greater clarity in the information candidates disclose in campaign finance reports.
- December 2013 - VPAP Board of Directors recommends five steps that, if adopted by the General Assembly, would results in candidate and lobbyist disclosures that are more timely and clear.
- April 2014: VPAP Board of Directors approves three-year strategic plan, which includes the goal of expanding funding beyond the state's lobbying community.
- May 2015: VPAP adopts a new theme — "Lighten Up, It's Just Politics" — for its annual fundraising luncheon. The event featured U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D) and state Sen. Tom Garrett (R) poking lighthearted fun at themselves and others.
- June 2015: VPAP adds new maps to explore demographics and other data to provide insights into Virginia beyond money in politics .
- June 2016: VPAP moves to expanded office space in a Shockoe Slip loft in downtown Richmond.
- Fall 2016: VPAP launches a new tool – "All Politics is Local" — that gives users who enter their residential address a list of their elected representatives, upcoming elections, a list of donors in their neighborhood, and more.
- June 2017: VPAP holds its first summer training session for 8th grade civics teachers and high school American history teachers.
- Fall 2017: VPAP creates "MyVaCandidate" tool that matches user's policy preferences to the policy positions of the gubernatorial candidates.
- June 2018: VPAP launches an online library for K-12 civics teachers and holds seminars for teachers around the state.
- September 2018: VPAP provides maps and analysis showing how court-ordered redistricting could reshape 25 House of Delegates districts.
- Fall 2018: VPAP completes a successful crowdfunding effort to purchase the state's voter file in order to analyze voting patterns.
- March 2020: VPAP launches a COVID-19 dashboard to make it easier for people to understand virus caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths.
- September 2020: VPAP launches a dashboard to capture the huge COVID-inspired shift to early voting in the 2020 presidential election.
- November 2020: VPAP redesigns its Election Night pages to prepare viewers for the possibility that concentrating millions of votes in a small number of central absentee precincts could lead to sudden, late swings in the outcome.
- May 2021: VPAP publishes real-time tabulations — over three days — of GOP ranked-choice primary voting.
- June 2021: VPAP marks the 10th anniversary of VaNews.
- Fall 2021: VPAP provides one-of-a-kind analysis of Virginia's redistricting efforts following the 2020 Census.
- November 2021: VPAP builds a tool that showed — in real time — how rural turnout was a decisive factor in the outcome of the governor's race.
- March 2022: VPAP releases an analysis showing how the 2021 gubernatorial candidates fared in the new state House and Senate districts created after the election.
- Summer 2022: VPAP begins the expensive task of rebuilding the 14-year-old computer application that imports campaign finance reports and is the main reason why Virginia has the nation's best transparency of money in politics.