Colbert’s ads advocate Rick ‘Parry’ write-in, create a straw-poll mess

Jeff Winkler Contributor
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With his officially sanctioned Super PAC, Stephen Colbert may have Rickrolled everyone involved in today’s Ames Straw Poll. This Rick, however, is Rick Perry — or “Rick Parry,” according to the Colbert Super PAC.

In two separate ads running since Thursday, the comedian urged straw poll voters to write in the fencing-inspired surname. Funny as the joke is, it could cause serious issues for Iowa officials as they count the ballots Saturday evening.

“We’re treating the straw poll as if it were any other election,” said Erin Rapp, Communications Director for the Iowa Secretary of State, the department overseeing straw poll write-in votes. “Basically, it’s up to the individual canvasser to determine the voter’s intent. You know, there could be variations of spelling in terms of name, but it’s really up to the official.”

The Iowa GOP is playing the straight-man to Colbert’s slapstick by following standard operating procedure. Spokesman Casey Mills said the state party will follow all the rules for write-in ballots, and has all but ignored Colbert’s efforts.

The Colbert Super PAC “touched base initially maybe a couple weeks ago,” said Mills. “They called to get a handle on the straw poll, but that was the extent of our interaction.”

What is the intent of a “Rick Parry” vote if some voters intentionally follow Colbert’s purposefully misleading instructions? Are there any unintended consequences? Rapp said 10 to 12 Secretary of State staffers have volunteered to serve as write-in officials, all of whom may have Bachmann-sized migraines by the time the dust settles.

“My guess is that they will end up tallying Rick Parry votes separately from Rick Perry votes, and then make a decision about how to count them,” said Rick Hasen, University of California-Irvine law professor and publisher of the Election Law Blog. “Whatever they decide, if there are a significant number of them, would be controversial.”

SInce the Ames Straw Poll is essentially a mock-election, there are no actual legal penalties for cheating. Not that Colbert would be violating any election laws in an actual contest, either. More than anything, Hasen said, Colbert’s Super-PAC-horseplay could have unintended consequences in the future.

“I believe he created his Super PAC as performance art, to critique the Supreme Court’s deregulatory approach in Citizens United,” said Hasen. “But if it leads to further deregulation, that would leave the Court with the last laugh.”

When the Federal Election Commission approved Colbert’s Super PAC, a political organization that can raise unlimited funds from individuals, companies and unions, one concern was the involvement of Viacom, parent company of Comedy Central, the network that broadcasts “The Colbert Report.”

The commission wondered, briefly, whether Viacom qualifies for the FEC “media exemption” that allows more traditional outlets to support candidates. Serious critics of the Colbert approval say it could open the door for other mega-media companies to do the same thing.

But Saturday, all that matters is how election officials decide the intent of voters who write in “Rick Parry,” Hasen said. “I’m more concerned,” he warned, “about the genuine Perry supporters who misspell his name.”

That, too, may be unlikely.

Iowa voters participating in the poll have to drive to Ames, and some drive long distances to get there. Thy are required to show ID before casting their straws. And they pay a $30 fee for the privilege.

As some on the ground in Iowa noted, once you’ve made it that far there’s little chance anyone will accidentally caste a “Parry” vote. As for those with comedic intentions, if they’re going through all that effort, time and money for a practical joke at Colbert’s urging, the joke just might be on them.

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