The good news is that the country’s main electoral finance watchdog may soon become operational again. The bad news is that its current president has derailed.
Trey Trainor might not be a household name. But as head of the Federal Election Commission, he oversees the campaign finance system that underpins federal elections. And in recent days, he has launched baseless conspiracy theories of electoral fraud stemming entirely from a Trump lawyer who believes the Fed is ready to tank the US economy in order to enrich George Soros.
“I think there is voter fraud” in key states in the 2020 presidential election, Trainor told conservative Newsmax last week. The allegations were quickly seized upon by the president’s allies, including his son Donald Trump Jr., in their efforts to overturn the results of an election that federal and federal government experts said was remarkably safe and reliable. .
Such proclamations carry extra weight when they come from the president of the FEC. But Trainor’s only source appears to be the words of Sidney Powell, a right-wing lawyer who represents the Trump campaign in its efforts to block certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory.
Campaign finance pundits recoiled at Trainor’s apparent embrace of questionable allegations. “My biggest concern with Commissioner Trainor is his partisanship, and to the extent that it straddles the conspiracy theorizing on voter fraud, it is a concern,” said Paul Seamus Ryan, vice president of litigation at the Common Cause group, in an interview on Tuesday.
But the comments were just the latest in a recent change in the FEC, led by Republican and Democratic commissioners, to expand its role to some extent beyond the commission’s traditional campaign finance enforcement mandate. Fueled by concerns over foreign interference in the 2016 election and false accusations of electoral fraud this year, the country’s top political money enforcement official appears to be considering expanded politics, even as the commission qu ‘he served on the ga was hampered by internal dysfunction and a severe staff shortage. to perform its most basic functions.
Trainor, a Texas electoral lawyer, is Trump’s first addition to the FEC, and since it was confirmed in May, he has radically changed the ideological makeup of the panel. While the commission was unable to do much in terms of regulation or proactive enforcement, Trainor used its perch to denounce pro-transparency groups that have repeatedly sued the FEC in an attempt to to force the application of federal electoral rules – or, as Trainor tells us, to effectively rewrite those rules through the courts.
His comments on the alleged voter fraud came just days before a Senate committee hearing on candidates, one Democrat and two Republicans, to fill the three empty committee seats. The FEC was made largely inoperative this year with the departure of Republican Commissioner Caroline Hunter. Without a quorum of four members to rule on major issues related to campaign finance and election law compliance, the FEC was unable to take substantive administrative action during an election year that broke records for the amount of money the two parties brought in.
The three new FEC commissioners would allow the commission to resume its normal functions. But his president’s questionable allegations of fraudulent voting – and the larger account of these irregularities that President Trump has been spreading in a last ditch effort to cling to power – have the potential to overshadow more substantial concerns about the actual mission. of the FEC at the confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
Even before Trainor’s electoral fraud plots, the FEC has come under fire in recent years for straying from its core mission of administering and enforcing campaign finance laws. In particular, the body has been accused of moving into areas of election administration that are not at the heart of its charter – and in fact are more in line with the jurisdiction of other federal bodies such as the Commission d United States electoral assistance.
On the Democratic side, FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub spoke out on poll questions less often associated with the FEC political arena. “Allegations of voter fraud in federal elections and the threat of foreign interference in federal, state and local elections,” Weintraub wrote, force the FEC to broaden its scope to include issues beyond its traditional mandate. , she wrote last year to Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), the top Republican on the House committee that oversees the FEC.
Davis’ response channeled critics who say the broad approach goes beyond the realm of FEC. “I am not aware of any changes made to the Federal Statute by Congress that would allow an ‘expanded role’ for the Federal Election Commission in [Weintraub’s] definition, ”he wrote.
That was more or less the position occupied by Hunter, Trainor’s predecessor at the FEC. In her response to Davis, she said the commission’s jurisdiction was limited to “enforcing the provisions of federal law relating to how candidates, parties, PACs and certain other actors collect, spend and disclose. federal election funds ”.
Electoral law experts see some leeway for the FEC to become more involved in electoral administration issues related to raising and spending funds in federal political contests. Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine, said his problem with Trainor’s statement on alleged voter fraud “isn’t the weigh-in, it’s the substance of what’s being said.”
“Trainor has made unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud which are pernicious and undermine voters’ confidence in the fairness and integrity of the election,” Hasen wrote in an email. “Some of his statements seem as extreme as President Trump’s and are not supported by the evidence.”
But for those hoping for a Wednesday hearing that sticks to the main challenges facing the FEC, the prospect of a hijacking of these key issues is troubling, especially with the president and his lawyers continuing to pursue growing legal challenges. bizarre for the 2020 election.
“The focus should be on the affairs of the FEC and the suitability of these candidates to do this important work, not some crazy conspiracy theories about non-existent voter fraud,” said Ryan of Common Cause. But, he added, “nothing would surprise me”.
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