Democrats may resist bill to restrict state elections officials' campaigning

Congressional Democrats, including those with executive-branch aspirations, may offer significant resistance to a Democratic bill that would affect how presidential campaigns operate in 2008.

Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) introduced legislation that would control and prevent chief state elections officials from actively participating in federal campaigns, responding to the involvement of the Florida and Ohio secretaries of state — former Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) and Ken Blackwell, respectively — in the Bush presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2004. However, with Democrats acquiring a majority of statehouses after the recent midterm elections, including those in several battleground states, some party members may object to, or undercut, the legislation before the 2008 races.

Democrats will face intense scrutiny as they largely will determine whether the bill comes up for a vote and how the bill will look in this circumstance, particularly given the promise of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that the current Democratic majority would produce the most open and ethical Congress in history.

Of the six Democratic members of Congress who have declared or are considering running for president — Sens. Joseph Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) — and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) — only the Kerry and Dodd offices responded by press time to questions regarding their support for the bill and their general view of the issue.

Stacey Bernard, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), said the leader feels “this is an important issue and we will talk further with Rep. Susan Davis about the legislation.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did not respond to calls for comment.

One House GOP leadership aide, however, contended that the bill “falls into the same category as many other Democrat proposals in this Congress” and could “make their list of legislative priorities or simply make a good sound bite” before adding that it may not be sound policy overall.

The Davis legislation would amend the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 by prohibiting the chief elections official of a given state from actively participating in any campaign for federal office. Such activities would include serving as a member of a campaign committee, using his or her office for soliciting campaign contributions or engaging in partisan political activity. The bill also has a more general provision, precluding the use of an official’s authority “for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election for Federal office.”

“The main need [for the bill is] so people know that elections will be run thoroughly, that the person running the election does not have a vested interest in the result,” a spokesman for Davis, Aaron Hunter, said. “Regardless of evidence showing wrongdoing, when a secretary of state or elected official [is involved in a campaign] it just doesn’t look right.” Hunter said that Davis did not speak with party leaders prior to introducing the legislation.

When asked whether Democratic members of Congress would try to offer blowback to the bill given their recent success in gubernatorial races and their hopes of winning the White House in 2008, Hunter said, “I can’t speculate what party leaders are thinking; ultimately Dems believe in good government.” After further discussion, he added, “I imagine there is [some member of the Democratic Caucus] who will take issue. This is politics.”

The political calculus for Democrats, however, has changed significantly since the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004. In addition to winning the majority in the House and Senate, Dems picked up a six-seat edge in statehouses. More notably, Democrats picked up three governorships in battleground states: Mike Beebe in Arkansas, a state recognized as the most Democratic in the Deep South, and Bill Ritter in Colorado and Ted Strickland in Ohio, where the 2004 presidential races were decided by 5 and 2 points, respectively.

Vincent Morris, communications director for Kerry, the Democratic presidential challenger in 2004, said, “Sen. Kerry supports the concept of the House election integrity act and would certainly support any effort on the Senate side to create a similar wall between politics and the elections process.”

Colleen Flanagan, a spokeswoman for Dodd, said, “While this legislation has not yet been re-introduced in the Senate, it raises important questions about how to better balance the First Amendment rights of election administrators with the public’s interest in ensuring fair elections overseen by impartial officials. Election officials must do all they can to be fair and impartial in administering elections, and avoiding real or perceived conflicts of interest. That may require them to refrain from engaging in partisan political activities, to step down from offices they hold to run for certain federal offices, to recuse themselves from decisions related to elections in which they participate, or to take other similar steps.”

Though Kucinich did not respond to calls for comment, he did speak out against Blackwell’s involvement in Ohio, saying, “The election in Ohio in 2004 stands out as an example of how, under color of law, a state election official can frustrate the exercise of the right to vote.”

The most notable examples of such involvement are those surrounding Harris and Blackwell, both of whom served as co-chairs of President Bush’s presidential campaign while secretaries of state in 2000 and 2004 respectively. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) conducted an investigation of the Ohio presidential election, culminating in a report stating that several voting irregularities had occurred, many of them caused by “intentional misconduct and illegal behavior” of Blackwell. Harris had certified the 2000 election in favor of President Bush despite the existence of several thousand disputed votes, a matter that resulted in a litigious whirlwind that was resolved after the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Bush in Bush v. Gore.

Both Harris and Blackwell subsequently ran for office, with Harris winning the 13th district seat in 2002 but losing in a bid for the Senate in 2006, while Blackwell was defeated by Strickland in the Ohio gubernatorial race.

A less-noted example of this phenomenon also occurred in 2000, when Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who was also a member of the state Democratic Party at the time, chaired presidential challenger Al Gore’s state campaign. Butterworth, in addition to campaigning on behalf of Gore, had filed a legal opinion with the Florida Supreme Court calling for a manual recount of ballots in various counties.

A voting-rights expert and professor of constitutional law at New York University Law School, Richard Pildes, described the bill as a “small but productive reform” and said it serves to “impose some national standards or principles in the elections for national office.” However, he added that the presence of partisan actors and influence is pervasive within the state electoral structure, including at the local level, where important voting policy decisions are made. Pildes went on to say that the design of election-administration structures is “obviously dysfunctional … other countries look and say this makes no sense at all.”