It’s election season in California (the primary election is on 3 June), and so the state’s newspapers are falling over each other to endorse Governor Jerry Brown in glowing terms. In the past, candidates could ‘cross-file’, in effort to register and win in the primaries of both paries. In the absence of a credible GOP challenger, and thanks to his own right-wing politics, Brown could almost replicate the trick pulled off by the likes of Earl Warren.
The other features of election season are the dirty tricks in play. In 2012, the morning of the election, the story broke that the Koch Brothers were using ‘dark money’ organisations to pour funds into supporting measures designed to strip workers of rights and protections and defeating measures designed to provide funding to the education sector after decades of cuts.
Today when I checked my mail I got something called the “Independent Voter Guide”. It came to me from an outfit called “Voter Guide Slate Cards”, which operates out of Long Beach. Its seal looks official, bearing an outline of our beautiful state, with blue and red colours, designed to illustrate its “independent” nature.
It endorses Jerry Brown for Governor, Derek Cressman for Secretary of State, Betty Yee for Controller, John Chiang for Treasurer, Kamala Harris for Attorney General, Tom Torlakson for Superintendent of Public Instruction, and other local officials.
I vote primarily for Democratic and Green candidates, avoiding the foaming, anti-social fundamentalists who dominate the GOP as well as right-wing Democrats like Jerry Brown who shred our safety net and public services under the cover of promoting “fiscal responsibility”. So although I certainly don’t agree with all of their recommendations, I would not by and large quibble with their slant.
What I object to, however, is the impression that the mailer attempts to convey: that it is “independent”, or that these recommendations are somehow neutral. In reality, that is not the case.
In print so small it strains my eyes, the mailer notes that “Appearance is paid for and authorized by each candidate and ballot measure designated by an *”. It appears that Cressman, Yee, and Karen Monroe (a candidate for County Superintendent of Schools) all paid to be on the mailer, positioning themselves alongside popular Democrats to boost their chances by giving the appearance that they have the endorsement of some independent organization.
The three of these candidates (along with Torlakson) have larger blurbs about their accomplishments on the back page of the mailer.
Last month, a group paid to have Voter Guide Slate Cards include endorsements on a “Republican” version of the guide (I’m a registered Independent, explaining why I got this version) of individuals who were not Republican candidates. Now no one would love to see the sociopathic fundamentalists in the extremist California GOP get their comeuppance more than I would. But there is a basic level of dishonesty in this practice that diminishes the quality of debate and misleads voters. And candidates from both parties pull these dishonest stunts, using profiteering political consultants.
In 2010, the Calitics blog reported that a similar mailer attributed the same quote endorsing candidates to different people on different mailers. This is apparently a comparatively cheap way for candidates—particularly those farther “down” the ticket, I would imagine—to secure the backing or at least attention of voters, provided they have the money to pay for a mailer.
The creator of my “independent” guide is Voter Guide Slate Cards, which boasts on its website that it has been “Delivering Winning Results Since 1986” and lists its e-mail as firstname.lastname@example.org The website proudly announces that it is “now taking reservations for the 2014 elections. The following guides will be published: Democratic Voter Guide; Republican Voter Guide; Independent Voter Guide (for mixed party households and decline to state voters)”. “For 25 years”, VGSC explains, the group “has been influencing elections through its direct mail program”.
It’s a big business, given that during “each major election cycle, VGSC distributes slate cards to millions of households in California and counts among its paying clients over 4,000 candidates and ballot measures…VGSC has proven to be tremendously influential in local races in which advertising dollars are limited and voter participation can be 50% less than better known top-of-the-ticket offices….Voters statewide”, they add, being commendably open about their dishonesty, “recognize our familiar graphic design used for 25 years”.
Our politics are impoverished enough as it is today. Candidates from the two major parties represent but a sliver of the options that should be available to citizens of a democratic society. But the entry of so much money into our political structure effectively squeezes out the views of those who do not have the resources to purchase access to voters.
Turnout is already very low in primary elections. And tragically, it continues to remain low even as primaries assume greater importance: in California these elections now weed out all but the top two candidates, ensuring that alternative viewpoints—Greens and Libertarians, for example—are not even available as options on the November ballot.
So it is all the more depressing to think about the number of people who will be influenced by moneyed interests and the candidates with the power—thanks, by and large, to moneyed interests—to buy voters’ attention. Californians should turn out to vote next week, and they should do so having taken some time to familiarize themselves with candidates and initiatives by consulting a variety of sources, and not simply the dishonest mailers masquerading as disinterested guides.