Former elections chief: Campaign finance panel would deadlock

Ruth Johnson (left) and Jocelyn Benson (right)

Michigan’s former top elections chief is speaking out against Republican efforts to strip campaign finance oversight from the secretary of state’s office.

Chris Thomas

The state’s former Bureau of Elections director, Chris Thomas, retired in 2017 after a 36-year career in five different administrations of both parties. He told the Michigan Advance that Republicans’ plan to move state campaign finance oversight to a new independent commission made up of three Republicans and three Democrats would not lead to fairer outcomes. Instead, it would politicize compliance.

The GOP-led Michigan Senate on Thursday passed legislation on largely party-line votes removing the key function from the purview of Secretary of State-Elect Jocelyn Benson, who will be the first Democrat to hold the office in 24 years.

Republicans have defended the package spearheaded by Sen. Dave Robertson (R-Grand Blanc) by pointing to other states that already have Federal Elections Commission-style campaign finance panels that oversee compliance in their respective states.

“Sen. Robertson’s goal was to set up an independent, bipartisan commission modeled after similar entities in 23 other states to have oversight over campaign finance rather than house that oversight in a single political office,” said Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive).

But Thomas said the current plan would deadlock the board at every turn. Most other states with such commissions have measures in place to prevent stalemates, he said.

Dave Robertson

If Robertson’s plan to move oversight from Benson’s office to a new 3-3 commission, Republicans and Democrats “will never agree” when there’s a violation, Thomas said. They will instead try to protect their party.

“They’re not gonna complete a compliance action against one of their own people,” Thomas said. “And I think that’s what we’re on the path here for.”

Thomas said he’s speaking out because he has worked in campaign finance for almost his entire career.

He was also a vocal proponent of Proposal 3, a ballot proposal voters approved in November allowing automatic voter registration, no-reason absentee voting and straight-party voting.

Thomas was first appointed in 1981 by former Secretary of State Richard Austin, a Democrat and the first African-American elected to a top statewide office.* Since then, Thomas has worked under three Republican secretaries of state: Candice Miller, Teri Lynn Land and Ruth Johnson, who is term-limited at the end of the year.

“I know of no one else here in Michigan or nationwide who has done more to support voters and improve election administration,” Johnson said in a statement when Thomas retired in June 2017.

Michigan’s secretary of state is a partisan office. But Thomas said during his decades serving under leaders from both parties, he never faced internal political maneuvering or top-down decrees that would have influenced the office’s enforcement of state campaign finance law.

Republicans have controlled every level of state government for the past eight years. Thomas said the timing of legislation like the proposed commission has everything to do with the GOP losing the offices of secretary of state, attorney general and governor to Democrats on Nov. 6.

“Had the election gone a different way, you wouldn’t hear a peep out of them,” he said.

Rebekah Warren

Democrats also slammed the move Thursday. They said it’s a blatant power play designed to strip authority from incoming Democrats who won key statewide offices.

“We saw higher voter turnout in November 2018 than in any other gubernatorial year since 1962, before I was born. Those voters spoke loudly and clearly. Their message was this: We want a new direction in this state. We, the citizens of Michigan, want more ownership over our political process, and to have more opportunities and more easily accessible opportunities to participate.

“Colleagues, I am mystified at how we have seemingly decided that we should respond to that very clear message.This legislation that we are voting on this afternoon goes completely the opposite direction,” Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor) said in her explanation for voting “no” on Thursday.

Speaking to reporters after the measure passed the GOP-controlled Senate Thursday, McCann defended the move.

She said “a legislator can come up with an idea and present it at any time within the session. So I don’t know that it’s a power grab. I don’t think I would characterize it that way at all.”

* Corrected, 8:15 p.m. Dec. 7, 2018.

Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein covers the governor’s office, criminal justice and the environment. Before that, he wrote about state government and politics for the Detroit News, the Associated Press and MIRS News and won a Society of Professional Journalism award for open government reporting. He studied philosophy at Michigan State University, where he wrote for both The State News and Capital News Service. He began his journalism career freelancing for The Sturgis Journal, his hometown paper.

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