Thursday, November 1, 2007

Stephen Colbert and the ’08 Election

Today, Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report has filed the necessary papers to be included in the Presidential Primary election in South Carolina. According to an Associated Press article, Colbert filed and paid the required fee to be placed on the ballot as a Democratic candidate just before noon today. It is now up to officials whether his name appears on the ballot or not. In order to appear on the ballot, “Colbert will have to show that he’s ‘nationally visible’ and that he’s spent time campaigning in the state” (from the New York Post).

Colbert’s “run” at the Presidency has caused debate within the Democratic Party, the party he hopes to run under. Democratic official Waring Howe has already told CNN that, “Over my dead body will Colbert’s name appear on the ballot.” On the other hand, as Democratic Party Vice Chairman Charles Hamby has told CNN that, "We know he won't be president. He knows that," “But it will bring a lot of people into the party."

Aside from this split within the party, there is debate as to how much Colbert’s run is detracting from the “real” candidates. Although, at the time, he at best will only appear on the South Carolina ballot, his celebrity status is causing a somewhat large section of the population, within the state and outside of it, to focus on Colbert as a candidate. Many fear that this will detract from people focusing on the viable candidates for the election and not hearing the platform the eventual Democratic Presidential candidate is supporting.

As a legal issue, many election law experts wonder whether Colbert is violating campaign rules. “In general, federal law prohibits corporations such as Viacom Inc., which owns Comedy Central, from using corporate funds to advocate directly for a candidate”. With Colbert using his Comedy Central program to further his “campaign”, some wonder whether this violates federal law. Viacom, some argue, may be guilty of providing illegal contributions of air time in support of a candidate.

Viacom may also run afoul of the “equal time rule”. Much as NBC’s position was when Fred Thompson chose to run, Viacom may face a requirement of allowing each additional Presidential candidate an equal amount of time as they allow Colbert in order to present their positions, approximately 20 minutes per night four nights each week. While NBC chose to pull the Law & Order episodes in which Fred Thompson appears, TNT continues to run these episodes at the risk of drawing scrutiny from the Federal Elections Commission. TNT seems to be testing the theory that this “equal time rule” only applies to broadcast television; if this is in fact the case, Viacom, who only runs the show on the cable network, may not be in violation of the rule after all (although, in the case of Fred Thompson he is arguably not the star of Law & Order, nor does he take his time on air to further his campaign, unlike Colbert).

In all likelihood, it is not probable that people will have a chance to vote for Colbert, either in South Carolina or elsewhere in the United States, and as such any potential issues faced by Viacom will become moot. Still, by his choosing to “run”, he has definitely brought several election law issues to the forefront, and has caused a greater interest in the current Presidential race. As Charles Hamby indicates, not only will Colbert bring more people to the Democratic Party, but I believe he will bring more people to think about the outcome of the 2008 Presidential election. Hopefully, once Colbert’s “run” is over, the interest he has raised, both in the issues and the pending election itself, will not disappear.

Additional information from: Los Angeles Times, the Slate

Additional analysis of the legal issues can be found here.

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