Colbert Run May Violate Federal Election Law

Comedian Stephen Colbert’s truthy run for the presidency may run afoul of federal election rules.

Federal law bars corporations from contributing to candidates, either through donations or in-kind contributions such as free use of goods or services. Media organizations are permitted to feature presidential candidates in covering campaigns. But no precedent exists for a television network promoting and fostering a candidacy of one of its own talk-show hosts, said Lawrence M. Noble, a former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission. And comedian Pat Paulsen’s 1968 candidacy predated current campaign finance regulations.

“The real problem comes in the fact that he actually has his own show, talking about his campaign, paid for by a network,” Noble said. “These are the kind of things on slow days you’d debate until the late afternoon at the FEC, but there are serious questions that come up. In theory, he could end up having some campaign finance problems.”

While he has talked about his candidacy publicly only in character — as the combative faux-talk-show host who favors “truthiness” on “The Colbert Report” — Colbert is taking formal steps that are consistent with an actual presidential candidacy. He has begun collecting signatures to get himself placed on both the Democratic and Republican presidential primary ballots in South Carolina. And while he has said he’s in the race to run, not to win, he has talked about trying to win delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

“I think a lot of people are asking whether — they say, ‘Is this, is this real,’ you know?” Colbert said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And to which I would say to everybody, this is not a dream, OK? You’re not going to wake up from this, OK? I’m far realer than Sam Brownback, let me put it that way.”

After being alerted to a possible election law violation, he and the network dropped plans to post signature forms on Comedy Central’s Web site, and instead created a bare-bones Web site for official campaign activity, www.colbert08.org. On Thursday’s program, he held up what he said was a letter from a Washington election lawyer, and made the legal framework part of his schtick. “In accepting corporate money, I promise to respect federal election laws the same way I respect the must-shower-before-swimming law at the Y,” Colbert said. “As a candidate, I am under no obligation to promote the zesty, robust taste of Doritos brand tortilla chips, regardless of how great a snack they may be for lunchtime, munch time, anytime.”

He also said that, because of election laws, Doritos would technically be sponsoring not his candidacy but his program’s coverage of his candidacy. “It’s illegal for my crunch money here to pay for the campaign, but it is legal for it to pay for my show, and the show can report on my campaign,” he said. “Host: ‘Eat them.’ Candidate: ‘I just happen to like ’em.’ “

Every time this sort of nonsense comes up, I’m reminded of the idiocy of our election laws and the harm done by John McCain in trying to fix the system. Frankly, I’d rather have my candidates openly sponsored by Doritos than spending four nights a week raising money in secret and then continue that practice while in office.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Popular Culture, US Politics, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sam says:

    Frankly, I’d rather have my candidates openly sponsored by Doritos than spending four nights a week raising money in secret and then continue that practice while in office.

    Word.

  2. Anderson says:

    Surely it’s satire, right?

    But then, so is Kucinich’s run.

  3. Michael says:

    Surely it’s satire, right?

    But then, so is Kucinich’s run.

    No, I’m pretty sure Kucinich’s campaign is a Comedic-Tragedy. But I’ve got to admit, his appearance on the Colbert Report made me laugh.