Late last night, lawmakers in Washington, D.C. took the first step to approve legislation a San Diego congresswoman proposed that would prohibit state election chiefs from participating officially in the federal campaigns they oversee.
The legislation, which had two democratic co-sponsors, attempts to prevent situations such as in 2004 when Secretary of State Ken Blackwell was in charge of the presidential election while at the same time acting as an honorary co-chair of the George Bush’s campaign in Ohio. Another situation was in 2000, when Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris co-chaired the Bush campaign.
Rep. Susan Davis, a Democrat from San Diego, introduced the bill in January 2009. The House approved it just before midnight yesterday 296-129. All but one of the lawmakers opposed are Republican, though 45 Republicans also voted in favor of it.
During the debate, Davis said public officials advocating for one candidate in the same election they are in charge of overseeing is “the equivalent of a person being player and referee at the same time.”
However, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA), one of the lawmakers opposed to the bill, said he was concerned about the rights of state elections chiefs and thought the bill imposed too many limits “without producing any justification why such a drastic action is warranted.”
“Restricting secretaries of states from their first amendment right to speak without any history of abuse is a dangerous precedent this House should not undertake,” he said in the debate.
Aaron Hunter, spokesman for Davis, said the bill is not so broad and instead addresses precise situations that could be seen as conflicts of interest that would harm public trust in the election system.
For instance, Hunter said, California Secretary of State Deborah Bowen could get involved in federal campaigns in other states because she isn’t overseeing those elections.
Hunter pointed to the case of Katherine Harris: “Her job was not only to get George Bush elected in Florida, but her job also was to ensure a fair election. I don’t know how those two go together. That’s the concern that we have.”
Lungren said his opposition to the bill did not mean he supports conflicts of interest.
“We can all agree that if someone is breaking the law and abusing their power to try to skew elections, they should be prosecuted accordingly,” he said.
The bill now moves on to be heard in the Senate.