As he fights to retain his job in a normally low-key race, interim Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin is testing the maxim that any publicity is better than no publicity.
Shortly after qualifying in July for election to the position he assumed after his predecessor’s resignation, Ardoin found himself in an unwelcome spotlight when the state reprimanded him for intervening in the awarding of a contract. He called it a misunderstanding and inadvertent, but it's led to litigation. That has allowed his opponents to question his competence for the job, if not his ethics.
While in this instance Ardoin might have unsuspectingly given his competitors a campaign issue, recently he handed them another one — this time on a silver platter. Last month, parish voting registrars began mailing ballots to registrants under a special program that allows elderly and shut-in voters to cast ballots through the mail.
Not long after, using internal departmental data not available publicly, Ardoin’s office spent more than $23,000 to send more than 47,000 letters to program participants who usually voted in past elections. With his name displayed throughout, the communication reminded recipients of the upcoming Nov. 6 state elections and of their ability to vote by mail.
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Never before had a previous secretary seen a need to do this. What's more, as a public information campaign, it made little sense for the letters to go to people with a consistent voting history, since those who seldom if ever voted seemed more in need of a reminder.
In short order Ardoin’s opposition objected, calling this little more than unethically using public dollars for campaign purposes. Receiving a letter whose letterhead matches a name on the ballot to which the note refers certainly could prompt recipients to tick the box next to that name. Still, Ardoin insisted that, even as his office fielded a few complaints about the mail out, some recipients conveyed thanks for the information.
Yet however unscrupulous this may seem, it’s not illegal. A bill failed this past regular legislative session that would have clarified and beefed up the statutes to prevent state, but not local, government officials from spending public dollars in “promoting, achieving, establishing, or restoring a favorable public image of or for advocacy of any public servant.”
The bill foundered when almost all House Democrats present voted against it, although almost all had voted for a similar version in 2016. They shouldn’t have reversed course. The bill’s attempt to make this prohibition crystal-clear and easier to enforce would have advanced government integrity.
But a mailer that doesn’t mention a specific contest wouldn’t seem to help Ardoin's campaign. Perhaps the law needs to prohibit specifically the secretary of state after he qualifies for that office from using nonpublic data in disseminating information about elections held on a day in which he is a candidate.
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Regardless, Ardoin use of taxpayer dollars to tell chronic voters about an upcoming election whose accompanying ballot has his name on it targets people most likely to make up their minds independently. The tactic could pick up some votes, but unlikely many that he otherwise wouldn’t have earned.
More likely, the unfavorable publicity from the incident that Ardoin’s rivals will amplify throughout the election season will cost him more votes than he nets. The controversy only cultivates a reputation, made credible due to his earlier misstep, of Ardoin as a typical politician trying to game the system. If so, he may regret pushing that ethics envelope.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com and writes about Louisiana legislation at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email email@example.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.