Kirk Shelmerdine is no political activist; in fact, he says he isn't even registered to vote. Rather, Shelmerdine is a NASCAR driver, albeit not a particularly successful one.
He is, by his own description, "considered to be a 'field filler' as my race cars and race team are underfunded and have no realistic chance of winning a race." But two years ago, Shelmerdine took a step that caused him to crash head-on into the authorities at the Federal Election Commission: Unable to sell the space to a corporate sponsor, he put a Bush-Cheney '04 decal on the rear quarter-panel of his car for four races. It's not clear exactly what motivated Shelmerdine.
He told a newspaper reporter at the time that "I'm very much against liberal ways when it comes to politics. This was the way to make our little statement." He later told the FEC that he had heard rumors that President Bush was going to be at the first race and figured the $50 decal would bring "publicity for me and the car."
Shelmerdine's decal resulted in a complaint to the FEC that he had violated federal election law by failing to file the report required of anyone who makes an independent expenditure valued at $250 or more in support of a candidate for federal office. The general counsel's office investigated; the commissioners tangled over how the decals should be valued: By considering Shelmerdine's cost in acquiring them? By averaging the amount Shelmerdine received from other sponsors when he did manage to sell the space? Finally, they agreed - in an action made public this week - to take the step that ought to have been obvious from the start: to send Shelmerdine a letter of admonishment warning him not to do it again.
Our customary criticism of the FEC is for doing too little to go after election law violations, not too much. But l'affaire Shelmerdine seems simply silly. None of the policies underlying the reporting requirements - the need for transparency in campaign spending, the avoidance of secret efforts to curry favor with candidates - were implicated here. There has to be a better use of FEC resources than investigating bumper stickers.
- Washington Post
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