Friday, June 24, 2011

Soros and liberal groups seeking top election posts in battleground states

From: Washington Times

A small tax-exempt political group with ties to wealthy liberals like billionaire financier George Soros has quietly helped elect 11 reform-minded progressive Democrats as secretaries of state to oversee the election process in battleground states and keep Republican “political operatives from deciding who can vote and how those votes are counted.”

Known as the Secretary of State Project (SOSP), the organization was formed by liberal activists in 2006 to put Democrats in charge of state election offices, where key decisions often are made in close races on which ballots are counted and which are not.

The group’s website said it wants to stop Republicans from “manipulating” election results.

“Any serious commitment to wresting control of the country from the Republican Party must include removing their political operatives from deciding who can vote and whose votes will count,” the group said on its website, accusing some Republican secretaries of state of making “partisan decisions.”

SOSP has sought donations by describing the contributions as a “modest political investment” to elect “clean candidates” to the secretary of state posts.

Named after Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code, so-called 527 political groups — such as SOSP — have no upper limit on contributions and no restrictions on who may contribute in seeking to influence the selection, nomination, election, appointment or defeat of candidates to federal, state or local public office.

They generally are not regulated by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), creating a soft-money loophole.

While FEC regulations limit individual donations to a maximum of $2,500 per candidate and $5,000 to a PAC, a number of 527 groups have poured tens of millions of unregulated dollars into various political efforts.

SOSP has backed 11 winning candidates in 18 races, including such key states as Ohio, Nevada, Iowa, New Mexico and Minnesota.

“Supporting secretary of state candidates with integrity is one of the most cost-efficient ways progressives can ensure they have a fair chance of winning elections,” SOSP said on its website, adding that “a relatively small influx of money — often as little as $30,000 to $50,000 — can change the outcome of a race.”

SOSP was formed in the wake of the ballot-counting confusion in Florida during the 2000 presidential election and a repeat of that chaos in Ohio in the 2004 presidential election. Democrats accused Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, both Republicans, of manipulating the elections in favor of GOP candidates — charges Mrs. Harris and Mr. Blackwell denied.

“Does anyone doubt that these two secretaries of state … made damaging partisan decisions about purging voter rolls, registration of new voters, voting machine security, the location of precincts, the allocation of voting machines, and dozens of other critical matters?” SOSP asked on its website.

SOSP said it raised more than $500,000 in 2006 to help elect five Democratic secretaries of states in seven races.

The Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, recommended in 2005 taking away the administration of elections from secretaries of state and giving it to nonpartisan election officers.

“Partisan officials should not be in charge of elections,” said Robert Pastor, co-director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University. “Both Democrats and Republicans not only compete for power, they try to manipulate the rules to get an advantage.

“We want to make sure that those counting votes don’t have a dog in that game,” said Mr. Pastor, who served as executive director and a member of the commission.

Known as the Secretary of State Project (SOSP), the organization was formed by liberal activists in 2006 to put Democrats in charge of state election offices, where key decisions often are made in close races on which ballots are counted and which are not.

The group’s website said it wants to stop Republicans from “manipulating” election results.

“Any serious commitment to wresting control of the country from the Republican Party must include removing their political operatives from deciding who can vote and whose votes will count,” the group said on its website, accusing some Republican secretaries of state of making “partisan decisions.”

SOSP has sought donations by describing the contributions as a “modest political investment” to elect “clean candidates” to the secretary of state posts.

Named after Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code, so-called 527 political groups — such as SOSP — have no upper limit on contributions and no restrictions on who may contribute in seeking to influence the selection, nomination, election, appointment or defeat of candidates to federal, state or local public office.

They generally are not regulated by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), creating a soft-money loophole.

While FEC regulations limit individual donations to a maximum of $2,500 per candidate and $5,000 to a PAC, a number of 527 groups have poured tens of millions of unregulated dollars into various political efforts.

SOSP has backed 11 winning candidates in 18 races, including such key states as Ohio, Nevada, Iowa, New Mexico and Minnesota.

“Supporting secretary of state candidates with integrity is one of the most cost-efficient ways progressives can ensure they have a fair chance of winning elections,” SOSP said on its website, adding that “a relatively small influx of money — often as little as $30,000 to $50,000 — can change the outcome of a race.”

SOSP was formed in the wake of the ballot-counting confusion in Florida during the 2000 presidential election and a repeat of that chaos in Ohio in the 2004 presidential election. Democrats accused Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, both Republicans, of manipulating the elections in favor of GOP candidates — charges Mrs. Harris and Mr. Blackwell denied.

“Does anyone doubt that these two secretaries of state … made damaging partisan decisions about purging voter rolls, registration of new voters, voting machine security, the location of precincts, the allocation of voting machines, and dozens of other critical matters?” SOSP asked on its website.

SOSP said it raised more than $500,000 in 2006 to help elect five Democratic secretaries of states in seven races.

The Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, recommended in 2005 taking away the administration of elections from secretaries of state and giving it to nonpartisan election officers.

“Partisan officials should not be in charge of elections,” said Robert Pastor, co-director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University. “Both Democrats and Republicans not only compete for power, they try to manipulate the rules to get an advantage.

“We want to make sure that those counting votes don’t have a dog in that game,” said Mr. Pastor, who served as executive director and a member of the commission.

In addition to his SOSP donation, Mr. Soros in 2006 also supported the project’s candidates in Ohio, Jennifer Brunner, to whom he gave $2,500, and in Minnesota, Mark Ritchie, who got $250. Both won.

In 2006, SOSP helped elect Democratic secretaries of state in Ohio, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada and Iowa while its candidates lost in Colorado and Michigan. In 2008, the group backed winning candidates in Montana, West Virginia, Missouri and Oregon. SOSP raised $280,316 and spent $278,224 in that two-year election period. It could not be determined how much the project raised additionally in donations for the candidate’s individual campaign funds.

In 2010, just two of the group’s seven candidates won in a Republican year — in Minnesota and California. It lost in Ohio, Colorado, Iowa, South Dakota and Michigan. The group said it raised $193,767 and spent $243,112. It could not be determined how much it raised in additional donations for individual candidates.

Minnesota is the prime example of the project’s success. Helping to elect Mr. Ritchie in 2006 and 2010, Democrats had one of their own making key decisions when the extremely close U.S. Senate race between incumbent Norm Coleman, a Republican, and his challenger, former comedian Al Franken, went to a recount in 2008.

Mr. Ritchie headed the canvassing board that conducted the recount. Mr. Coleman initially had a lead of 206 votes out of 2.9 million cast, but after the recount, the board decided Mr. Franken had won by 225 votes. Republicans criticized Mr. Ritchie and the canvassing board, but the Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously upheld the finding.
Republican Mary Kiffmeyer, who lost to Mr. Ritchie in 2006, said SOSP’s involvement contributed to her defeat.

“They absolutely had an effect,” said Ms. Kiffmeyer, now a GOP state representative. She said she was leading by 17 percentage points the week before the election, when SOSP and its allies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on targeted television ads and mailings. She said she had no time or money to respond to the last-minute attack ads, which linked her to Mr. Bush.

Ms. Kiffmeyer said she was limited to raising no more than $500 from an individual and spending just $250,000, but the SOSP had no such limits.

Mr. Soros, who lives in New York, did not donate directly to SOSP in 2006, but he was a serious donor to other important groups in Minnesota during the 2006 campaign. He gave $200,000 to America Votes-Minnesota, which led a get-out-the-vote drive just before the election — more than half of what it raised in 2006. He also gave $10,000 to the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party on whose ticket Mr. Ritchie ran.

“I want to thank the Secretary of State Project and its thousands of grass-roots donors for helping to push my campaign over the top,” Mr. Ritchie wrote. “Your wonderful support — both directly to my campaign and through generous expenditures by the strategic fund — helped me get our election reform message to Minnesota voters. And the voters overwhelming cast their ballot to protect our democracy on election day.”

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