Friday, November 19, 2004

Missouri Governor-Elect Walked A Fine Line on Voting Ads

Two weeks after the election, the Missouri Ethics Commission cleared Governor-elect Matt Blunt of charges that he used government money to further his own political career by running pro-voting newspaper ads featuring his photograph shortly before the August 3 primary in which Blunt was a candidate.

As then-Secretary of State, Blunt was in charge of spending federal funds to improve Missouri elections and encourage voter turnout. This year, he was also running for governor. Shortly before the August 3 primary, Secretary of State Blunt spent $48,000 on an ad in some 300 Missouri newspapers encouraging people to vote. The ads had a smiling picture of Blunt, a bald eagle, and a pro-voting message. Four of his primary opponents complained he was using public funds to promote himself, not voting.

This situation presents a couple problems:

1) State voting officials walk a fine line between doing their jobs and self-promotion as they promote voting or educate the public about elections. Officials in Nevada and California have recently come under fire for abusing their elected positions for personal advancement.

While the state ethics commission cleared Blunt of these particular charges, it is not clear they would have done so if Blunt had spent $480,000 on ads with his image, and had done so all the way up until the general election. Whether a public official crosses the line is a matter of context, the ethical correctness of which should probably be judged on a case by case basis, but it is something voters should look out for.

2) Regardless of the commission's verdict, the public should be able to factor that information into their decision about whom to vote for, regardless of its outcome. Although he won the election, Blunt could have been harmed by the unresolved ethics investigation. The voters and the candidates deserve a system like Minnesota's, which provides for an expedited adjudication process of any elections complaints.

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