Ads on Ballots to Pay for S.C. Primary? Sponsor Logos on Ballots Not out of the Question
by Jennifer Talhelm
Charlotte Observer, October 3, 2003

February's S.C. presidential primary could be brought to you by ... name your price.

S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Joe Erwin says he plans to seek corporate sponsorships to help raise $500,000 to hold the Feb. 3 primary, which the state party has to pay for.

If a corporation wants to give a little extra to slap its name on a ballot or a media backdrop -- or pretty much anything -- he'll consider it. It's a takeoff on the way ballparks sell ads on scoreboards or seatbacks.

"Some statewide corporation may want their company identified with democracy," said Erwin, a Greenville, S.C., marketing executive. "You do what you have to do as long as you do it legally and with integrity."

South Carolinians will play an important role in choosing the next Democratic presidential nominee -- assuming the primary goes on as scheduled. The first-in-the-South contest falls third after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. North Carolina's Sen. John Edwards considers South Carolina a must-win.

But Democrats are struggling to find money to pay for it. South Carolina is one of only a few states that require the state party to pay for the primary.

Erwin has been raising money since he was elected chairman in May. He has about $220,000 in gifts and pledges, but he'll have to use about half that just to make payroll and keep the headquarters open.

Erwin has been soliciting donations from companies for several weeks. Campaign finance laws allow corporations to contribute to state parties for some activities, he said.

He said he got the idea to go a step further and allow companies to use their names and logos on election materials during a recent conversation with Iowa Democrats.

To help pay for the caucuses, Iowa Democrats plan to sell space on a media backdrop. No one's signed on yet, said party spokesman Mark Daley.

The S.C. Democrats haven't lined up anyone yet either. But they say corporations could sponsor ballots, get-out-the-vote ads or signs outside polling places. They're still talking to lawyers and party officials about their options.

"Everything will be done in good taste," assured Democratic Party Executive Director Nu Wexler.

A Republican Party official ridiculed the idea. "That idea has about as much credibility as the Democratic Party and their candidates. It's just about as absurd as they are," said S.C. GOP Executive Director Luke Byars.

Paul Sanford, counsel for the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, said selling space on election materials is probably legal, though he'd never heard of anyone doing it before. But he questioned whether it's appropriate.

"I don't really think it's a good thing to commercialize the voting process," he said. "Just because it's not illegal, it doesn't mean it's a good thing."

Erwin brushed off the criticism, saying it would be worse if the primary were canceled.

"It somewhat changes the nature of politics, but boy, isn't it consistent with the way things are changing?" he said.