The Republican vice chairman of the Federal Election Commission resigned Monday, leaving the election oversight agency without enough members to vote on enforcement actions.
Matthew S. Petersen told Secrets that he submitted his letter of resignation (shown below) to the White House Monday morning. It said that he will leave the agency by the end of the week.
“It’s just the right time,” said Petersen, who has won wide praise for his steady and thoughtful approach to election issues, his dedication to the First Amendment, and battles to fend off the regulation of technology and the internet.
“During the course of my tenure, I have always taken very seriously my obligation to safeguard the First Amendment rights of the American people when taking regulatory action,” said Petersen, nominated to the board in 2008 by former President George W. Bush.
Over his 11 years, he helped to guide and support decisions to improve the FEC’s technology and transparency, enforce the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened the door to political spending by corporations and unions, and reject regulation of internet outlets, including conservative voices like the Drudge Report.
He also fostered the explosion of politics on the internet, which has led to the growth of small dollar donations and political engagement on mobile devices.
“The legitimacy of government action is bolstered when everyone feels they have received a fair shake,” he said in his letter to President Trump.
“It’s been an incredible honor,” he told Secrets of his 17 years in government. He was a key House and Senate staffer in the passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 and the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 that tightened lobbying rules.
Petersen, who was helping his daughter move into a Utah college over the weekend, did not hint at his future plans. Trump in 2017 nominated him to a U.S. district court judgeship, but he withdrew after struggling with questions at a confirmation hearing.
His departure leaves just three commissioners at the agency. When fully staffed, there are six members, split evenly along political lines. The FEC rules require four members to establish a voting quorum.
The agency has a revolving chairmanship, now held by Democrat Ellen Weintraub. The two others are Republican Caroline C. Hunter and independent Steven T. Walther. Trump has nominated one new member.
Without a quorum, the agency cannot vote on most things, including enforcement actions and the issuance of election opinions. But experts said the board has already been stymied by partisanship, highlighted by Weintraub’s recent tweets against Trump and Republican commissioners.
Petersen’s Republican allies were eager to praise him.
“Matt Petersen is a true gentleman-scholar and tireless defender of Americans’ First Amendment rights. Matt is a consummate professional and a good friend to all — he will be sorely missed,” Hunter told Secrets.
Former FEC Chairman Lee Goodman said, “Matt’s thoughtful and analytical approach to the law influenced virtually every major decision of the Commission over the past decade. In addition to his analytical approach to the law, Matt was always a gentleman commissioner, a consummate professional, and a calming personality on a body often at philosophical odds.”
Institute for Free Speech said in a statement, “We wish to congratulate Matthew Petersen on a successful eleven-year tenure at the Federal Election Commission. Throughout his time at the FEC, Commissioner Petersen demonstrated a commitment to fair and effective enforcement of campaign finance laws. His respect for First Amendment rights and Supreme Court precedent should serve as a model for future commissioners. Commissioner Petersen’s faithful execution of the FEC’s mission is all the more impressive in light of the shrill and misleading criticisms often levied at the Commission. His presence at the FEC will be missed.”
Petersen was especially thankful to his and the FEC’s staff. “Over the course of 11 years, a lot of things happen,” he said.
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