RICHMOND — More than two-thirds of Virginia voters agree with a jury that last week found former governor Robert McDonnell and his wife guilty of trading the prestige of the commonwealth’s highest office for loans and lavish gifts, and more than half believe the state needs stronger ethics laws, a new poll shows.
According to a survey released Tuesday by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, after the verdict was handed down Thursday, 68 percent of voters agreed with the jury, 12 percent disagreed, and 16 percent were unsure.
The numbers fell along party lines with 82 percent of Democrats agreeing with the verdict compared with 52 percent of Republicans. McDonnell, a Republican, was once a leader in the party, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and reportedly a contender for Mitt Romney’s vice presidential choice in the 2012 election.
Before the verdict shocked a state where a governor had never been charged with a criminal offense let alone convicted of corruption, more than half of voters — 54 percent — were unsure if the McDonnells should have been found guilty, and only 29 percent favored conviction.
After the verdict was announced, 55 percent of voters surveyed said the General Assembly should pass stiffer ethics rules for elected officials, including 64 percent of Democrats, 57 percent of Republicans, and 47 percent of independents. However, 31 percent of voters said the current laws were sufficient.
“Virginians followed the trial very closely, and they think it was fair,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center. “It’s clear from the poll that they were dismayed by the McDonnells’ actions, and now they want their delegates and senators to respond by stiffening the laws.”
Also on Tuesday, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City) promised in a letter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch to seek to enact “stronger and more stringent” reforms.
“This means looking at gifts, travel and other favors, and making clear determinations on what is acceptable and unacceptable. It means rigorously scrutinizing our transparency, disclosure and reporting requirements, and making clear determinations on the public’s right to know. It means implementing a system of accountability that ensures compliance and deals appropriately with violations,” they wrote.
After the McDonnells were charged in January, the General Assembly put a cap of $250 on the value of acceptable gifts and increased reporting requirements; trips and meals remained limitless.
The Wason Center surveyed 819 registered Virginia voters, from Sept. 2 to 7, a timeline that overlapped the verdict on Thursday. The margin of error was up to 5.7 percentage points for some questions.