Like sausage-making, disputing elections isn’t pretty. But unlike knockwurst, recounts — and the court battles that inevitably follow — never come cheap.
Just ask Christine Jennings (D).
“How many people cast ballots in that election? Well, that’s how many issues you have — tens of thousands or more individual facts you’re trying to determine. That’s incredibly labor-intensive,” said Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer. “And who’s doing all of the investigations? Lawyers … or they’re supervising others. The costs get astronomical quickly.”
Jennings, who lost last November to now-Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) by 369 votes, turned one page in her still-disputed House race two weeks ago. After months of back-and-forth, a Florida appeals court recently denied Jennings’ request to explore the crucial inner-workings of electronic voting equipment she claims contributed to thousands of “undervotes” and cost her the election.
House Democrats are now sorting through the allegations.
And while the appellate court’s ruling has largely pushed Jennings out of the process for now, the dense patchwork of auxiliary campaign committees, countless legal bills and other recount accoutrement is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
Based on a Roll Call analysis of campaign finance documents and interviews with her campaign and the national party committee, Jennings’ 2006 race has become a complex Web of nested accounts and pass-through political committees that obscure hundreds of thousands of dollars in party committee largesse and hefty small-dollar fundraising nationwide on behalf of Jennings, who has become a patron saint to thousands of election activists scattered nationwide.
Since early 2004, when Jennings filed with the Federal Election Commission as a Democratic House candidate in the race to replace Florida’s 13th district Rep. Katherine Harris (R), her principal campaign committee has brought in roughly $3.6 million, according to CQ PoliticalMoneyLine.
Combined with Buchanan’s take, the race was the most expensive House contest last year, with the two collectively spending $11.4 million.
According to Jennings spokesman David Kochman, soon after Election Day, Jennings’ campaign and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee established the Florida 13 Recount Fund, a joint federal fundraising committee that would serve as a clearinghouse for a national fundraising campaign. Since then, the committee has been little more than conduit account that transfers its proceeds to Jennings’ principal campaign committee, Kochman said.
“The recount fund was set up quickly to start [raising] money…to get things rolling,” Kochman said. “The Florida 13 Recount Fund was set up, so that the [DCCC and the Florida Democratic Party] could help out. They were the ones that took the lead and set up that account … to get through the first burst.”
Kappel said the sheer expense of recounts makes it difficult for candidates to go it alone once the outcome is disputed. Local donors may be weary and state election boards often want a hefty down payment for what can become a arduous and costly process.
“The party helps you raise money [and] it’s pretty typical for the candidate to set up a separate fund to raise money specifically for the recount,” Kappel said. “Usually they’re done in conjunction with the state or national party, so the candidate personally doesn’t have to go out and raise all of the money.
“The can use all of the machinery of either the state party or the national party to help them raise money,” he added. “It can get extraordinarily expensive — and not just the legal fees involved.”
Jennings also could have raided her 2004 campaign account to help pay for the recount, Kappel said, if an outstanding debt of $300,000 did not prohibit her from freeing up the roughly $10,000 left over. That year, Jennings, a former bank executive, lost the Democratic primary to take on Harris, the Republican incumbent, and still owes herself more than $300,000.
Other than one mid-December 2006 e-mail, the DCCC largely has stayed out of direct fundraising for Jennings, opting instead to directly pay Jennings’ legal bills related to the recount and state court case. In the past 90 days, the DCCC has paid more than $245,000 in recount-related bills to Jenner & Block LLP, and more than $75,000 to the law firm of Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney now in private practice in Miami.
While the DCCC has been a stable source of funding for lawyers’ fees, Jennings also has paid a portion of her own legal bills since 2005. Jennings has paid roughly $154,000 in legal fees during the 2006 and 2008 election cycles out of her own primary campaign account.
And with many legal fees likely still being tabulated, Jennings’ total legal bills could top $500,000 or more, and the full amount may not be known until third-quarter reports come due in October. Steeper legal bills likely will force Jennings to again lean on a national donor base, which appears to view her as a symbol of all that ails polling places.
Jennings has raised $122,000 though an ActBlue.com recount fund and another $58,000 from various accounts set up on the Web site, which bundles small-dollar contributions for Democratic candidates. DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said Jennings has become a figurehead for many voters who now favor bills requiring a paper trail for electronic voting machines.
“She set it in motion … a number of legislative efforts to improve the election process,” Van Hollen said. “We already saw Florida change its own law…[and] up here, she’s often cited as the reason we need to move for on election reform legislation.”
With Jennings and Buchanan almost inevitably moving to a rematch in 2008, Democrats are hoping Jennings’ persistence in the cause of election reform will pay off at the polls.
Kochman, Jennings’ spokesman, said the recount has allowed Jennings to assemble a loyal network of online donors. For more than six months after the election, her campaign regularly sent out ActBlue.com-linked newspaper editorials and recount updates that likely played no small part in enlisting more than 3,000 online donors — a factor Jennings likely will consider as she mulls a 2008 run.
“The one thing that we weren’t able to do much prior [to the 2006 election] was national [fundraising],” Kochman said.