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Clean Elections considering Bennett request to appear in voter education ads

Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

The Citizens Clean Elections Commission said it needs more information before deciding whether Secretary of State Ken Bennett’s request to appear in voter education ads being planned by his office would constitute a promotion of his candidacy for governor.

The Secretary of State’s Office is planning to run television ads informing voters about how to properly cast their early ballots, which Bennett said is an attempt to avoid problems during the 2012 election, when a wave of provisional ballots cast by people on the Permanent Early Voting List caused the vote counting to drag on for two weeks.

Bennett said it hasn’t been decided yet whether he will appear in the ads.

Bennett is a Clean Elections candidate, and is asking the commission for a determination as to whether his appearance in voter education ads would be considered to be promoting his candidacy for governor. If so, the ads would violate state law and Clean Elections rules.

The secretary of state, who is part of a crowded Republican primary field for the 2014 gubernatorial race, said the commission should issue a “no action” recommendation because the ads would in no way promote his candidacy. If he appears in the ad, he said, it will likely only be for a few seconds.

“That’s the stupidest thing that I could do is put anything in these ads that would even touch crossing the line of, ‘And vote for me for governor.’ It’s simply not going to happen,” Bennett told the commission on Thursday. “I’m just trying to be straightforward and transparent and do something up front, rather than do it anyway and then be back here in a few months asking forgiveness, if such forgiveness is necessary.”

Bennett said the proposed ads are strictly for the purpose of voter education. But he also said he became the face of the 2012 counting delay, appearing in the news and even testifying in Congress about it. And if similar problems arise this year, Bennett said he would undoubtedly take some of the blame for it, which could be used against him in the general election if he wins the GOP primary.

“If I happen to win the Republican nomination in the primary and we have a similar situation that happens with all these provisional ballots and it takes two weeks to count all the ballots and things like that, I will predict with 99 percent surety that the ads will not be attacking the Secretary of State’s Office for not solving the problem. They will attack Ken Bennett, who might then be the nominee for governor,” Bennett said.

Tom Collins, the commission’s executive director, said he can’t make a proper recommendation to the commission until he has more details about the ad, such as the proposed script and visuals.

“What he’s asked us … is for an assurance that what he is doing is not complaint-worthy, that when the complaint comes in, we will hand someone a thing that says we have vouched for him,” Collins said. “Because of that, we have to actually be more fact-specific than we otherwise might be because we are giving him a pass.”

In his request to the commission, Bennett noted that the commission authorized Gov. Jan Brewer, who was running as a Clean Elections candidate, to appear in television ads for Proposition 100, a temporary sales tax increase that went before the voters in a 2010 special election. The commission ruled that the ads would be used to promote the ballot measure, not her candidacy for governor.

Collins also noted in his written recommendation to the commission that, in 2006, Brewer, who was then running for re-election as secretary of state, received Clean Elections approval to appear in voter education ads explaining new voter identification requirements.

The Secretary of State’s Office will use federal Help America Vote Act funds to pay for the ads, Bennett said.

Some commissioners were receptive to Bennett’s request. Commissioner Steve Titla said he saw little problem with the Bennett’s appearance in the proposed ads.

“We should try to get the provisional voter issue taken care of,” Titla said. “The way I see it, it flows naturally from his job.”

Others were wary. Commissioner Louis Hoffman said he’d prefer that Bennett didn’t appear in the ads, but didn’t think the commission had the authority to bar him from doing so. And commission chairman Timothy Reckart questioned whether Bennett needed to appear in the ads as well.

“My instinct, though, is (that) the prudent thing to do so we avoid the issue is (that) you recuse yourself,” Reckart said.

Sam Wercinski, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, a liberal advocacy group, urged the commission to reject Bennett’s request. In a letter to the commission, Wercinski said it should prohibit Bennett from using his office for public exposure if it’s not necessary.

Attorney Mike Liburdi, who serves as campaign counsel for Doug Ducey, one of Bennett’s opponents in the GOP primary, also asked the commission to reject Bennett’s request. He pointed out that, earlier in the meeting, the commissioners watched two new voter education ads being planned by the commission, including one about early ballots, and said both were effective, despite not visually showing any people.

“I think there is a serious question as to whether express advocacy is triggered when a candidate for public office appears in an advertisement, and that advertisement encourages people to take a ballot, vote on that ballot and cast that ballot, when that person’s name is at the very top of the ballot,” Liburdi said.

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