Amid concerns that it could benefit him in his gubernatorial campaign, the Citizens Clean Elections Commission rejected Secretary of State Ken Bennett’s request that it authorize him to appear in voter education ads.
The commission voted 3-0 not to give Bennett a “no action” determination that would inoculate him from complaints from other campaigns over the proposed ads. Tom Collins, the commission’s executive director, had recommended that the commission reject the request from Bennett, who is running for governor with Clean Elections funding.
Bennett said the ads are intended to cut down on the number of provisional ballots cast in the Aug. 26 primary election and are completely unrelated to his campaign for governor. The large number of provision ballots cast in the 2012 general election caused the vote count to drag on for about two weeks.
The commissioners said they supported the message of the ad, which urges people on the Permanent Early Voting List to mail in their ballots and not show up at polling places afterward. The commission plans to run similar ads itself.
But several commissioners expressed concern that the ads would benefit Bennett’s gubernatorial campaign.
“I think it’s hard to deny that appearing in an ad of this nature improves name recognition and face recognition, and those are certainly benefits in a campaign,” Commissioner Mitchell Laird said.
Commissioner Thomas Koester said he didn’t think Bennett needed to appear in the ad personally.
“An ad could be run with an actor or someone else that would provide the same effective information to the voter without your name or face being on the ad,” Koester said.
Bennett said the ad does not meet the legal definition of “express advocacy” because it doesn’t identify him as a candidate for governor and in no way mentions the governor’s race.
“The fundamental and only question before the commission is does the communication have any reasonable meaning other than to advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate? I think it’s clear that the answer to that question is undeniably yes,” Bennett said. “This ad is designed to fall squarely within the boundaries of the issue advocacy that is the responsibility of our office.”
Bennett said he and his office have an interest in reducing the number of provisional ballots cast in the upcoming election. He noted that after the prolonged vote count of 2012, he testified in Congress about it, not county election officials of members of the Clean Elections Commission.
“I’ve got to be able to do my job as the secretary of state,” he said.
Collins disagreed that the ads didn’t rise to the level of express advocacy. Regardless of whether the ad mentions the governor’s race, it would still feature a “clearly identified candidate” for governor, he said.
“The question is the context. You’re assuming that it doesn’t use the so-called magic words, like ‘vote for.’ It’s still in context what is going on,” Collins said.