PITTSFIELD >> Many have asked me if Bill Clinton and the mayor of Boston violated election laws Tuesday when they went into a polling station in West Roxbury and shook hands. It is a natural question to direct at me because I am both an attorney and a supporter of Bernie Sanders.
The secretary of the Commonwealth enacted a regulation which reads, "Within 150 feet of a polling place.., no person shall solicit votes for or against, or otherwise promote or oppose, any person . . . to be voted on at the current election." There are certain rules for interpreting statues or regulations. One of the rules is that words in a regulation are not considered merely repetitious of other words in the same regulation. So when a regulations says one should not "solicit votes for or against" a candidate, and then adds, one shall also not "otherwise promote or oppose" a candidate, the subject matter of "otherwise promote or oppose" a candidate encompasses activity that is above and beyond merely explicitly soliciting a vote or openly advocating for a candidate. This avoids an interpretation that calls for a redundancy.
I was wondering if I could do what Clinton did. In a call to another branch of the Elections Division I said that if I were to run for office, I would like to greet people as they came into a voting location, and asked if I would be allowed to do that, so long as I did not ask for their vote. I was told that this would definitely not be legal. I asked the staffer "why?" since I made it clear I would not solicit votes. I was told, "Because you are a poster for yourself."
The gist of the conversation was that if I engaged in such behavior, I would be first asked to stop, and then if I continued and refused to obey, election officials would probably call the police and have me arrested. Candidates for office can, of course, monitor polls and check on results and the like, but you cannot try to influence voters within 150 feet.
It is my legal opinion that Bill Clinton had both the intention and did in fact engage in behavior that was promoting a candidate for elected office, namely his wife, because as former president, he functions as the equivalent of a poster for his wife. He obviously was engaging in a campaigning photo-op to promote his wife's candidacy, not checking in on the vote tally at the West Roxbury voter location. His conduct would be a violation of 950 CMR §54 22(d).
No help from Galvin
The day after primary election day, I made multiple attempts to speak to Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who refused to return my phone calls. He was always "on the phone." Two days later, he was "out of the office."
I also started to speak with spokesman Brian McNiff. The pesky thing about an attorney functioning as a freelance columnist is that we know just what to ask, and we are not dependent on the secretary for his own exegesis of the law. All of sudden, Mr. McNiff had to take a phone call and said he would get back to me. He never did. He refused multiple attempts to speak to him, despite the fact he knew I would be writing a column and would be mentioning his failure to return my calls.
I left his secretary with two questions: (1) Was it the secretary's position that Bill Clinton and Mayor Martin Walsh violated campaign laws? (2) Did an election warden ask Bill Clinton or the mayor to leave the premises? I am still waiting for an answer.
Walsh should have known better. So I called up his office, and attempted to find out if an election warden asked him or the former president to leave the election premises. No one would speak to me in a couple of hours of my phone call (despite them knowing this was for a column), and when I called again hours later, they only took down my information and question.
It is bad that Clinton and Walsh appear to be violating campaign laws. It is also bad that the secretary of the Commonwealth refuses to answer simple questions such as whether the former president's photo-op seemingly so as to "otherwise promote" the candidacy of his wife for office (without explicitly asking for her vote) violated 950 CMR §54 22(d). But what is worst is that the mayor and former president got away with conduct that you or I could not have possibly gotten away with, and that is the type of elitism that the Sanders campaign opposes. No person should be above the law, not even a current mayor or a former president.
The author's columns have appeared across the nation.