If Ken Bennett wants some protection from being accused of campaign finance violations he's going to have to appear less — maybe a lot less — in a public service announcement aimed at early voters.
Without dissent, members of the state's Citizens Clean Elections Commission on Thursday rebuffed the bid by the secretary of state to get what would amount to a legal pass from them to have his face and voice on a TV spot urging those who get early ballots to mail them back quickly and not simply show up on Election Day at the polls. Bennett said that, as the state's chief election officer, it is his responsibility to prevent the kind of chaos that occurred two years ago when voters did not heed that message. But Mitchell Laird, a member of the commission, said it's not that simple.
That's because Bennett also happens to be running this year for governor, and Laird said that could make the commercial essentially a campaign commercial — but one paid for with public dollars.
“It's hard to deny that appearing in an ad of this nature improves name recognition and face recognition,” he said. “And those are certainly benefits in a campaign.”
Thursday's vote is not the last word.
Bennett said he will try to recraft the measure to address the panel's concerns, which may mean less face time on the TV screen.
But Bennett remains insistent that he — and not someone from his office — should be the one in the commercial.
“I'm the chief elections officer,” he said. Bennett said he was the one being quoted on TV two years ago when the system melted down.
What happened was a lot of people who received early ballots instead went to the polls. Since there was no way of determining at that point whether they already had voted, they were given “provisional” ballots that were set aside and counted, back at the office, only after verifying they were not duplicates.
Only thing is, the number of those provisional ballots — 60,000 in Maricopa County alone — choked the system and resulted in delays in determining who won certain races.
Bennett proposed a TV ad — featuring him — talking about the problem and urging people who got those early ballots to mail them. And if they mailed them, the commercial tells them not to go to the polls.
He asked the commission to give him a ruling that commercial, paid for with federal voter-education funds, won't result in the commission charging him with violating campaign finance.
Timothy Reckart, the commission chairman, said the commercial may be legal under the state's campaign finance laws. But he and his colleagues refused to say, on the record, that they would not bring charges against Bennett once the final version airs.
Bennett said he may have someone else record the “voice over” on top of the videos of election workers dealing with the glut of provisional ballots and see if that passes the commission's smell test.
Bennett said he remains adamant that he should be in the final version.