527 Works to Install Liberals as Election Overseers; No Cap on Gifts from Rich Activists

Article excerpt

Byline: Chuck Neubauer, THE 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.

One of the SOSP's financial backers is Mr. …