If you’re the kind of Californian who votes in most elections, you have by now received stacks of the political mail sent out to convince voters that people they trust have made a slate of recommendations for every race in the upcoming election.
But many of these mailers don’t come from people you trust. They come from political consultants.
The peculiar California institution known as the “slate mailer” typically features images of people you trust on one side and a lot of little boxes on the other. Inside each box is the recommendation for a candidate or measure on the ballot.
But these “recommendations” have an asterisk. Literally. The asterisk next to the name or ballot measure indicates that the candidate or committee paid to be on that mailer.
It’s advertising. And often, it’s extremely deceptive advertising.
Many Republicans contacted me to ask why the Republican Party was endorsing a bunch of Democratic candidates in the upcoming city elections. They had received very convincing mailers that featured pictures of elephants or Ronald Reagan, or both, typically accompanied by the words, “Republican Voter Guide” and “Take this card to the voting booth with you.”
But the Republican Party isn’t endorsing Democrats and it isn’t sending out slate mailers.
There are still enough Republicans in Southern California to swing a race between two Democrats, so campaigns pay consultants to send mail that tricks GOP-registered voters into thinking Democrats are Republicans. City races are officially nonpartisan, so there’s no party affiliation listed next to a candidate’s name.
If voters are confused, the consultants have done their job.
Voters who registered with no party preference also receive slate mailers, as do Democrats. The principle is the same. One side of the mailer features people you trust, or slogans that really resonate with you. The other side is paid advertising, one ad for every race that’s on the ballot.
I know what you’re thinking. Why is this even legal?
It’s legal because the small print on the mailer discloses exactly what’s going on. If you have a magnifying glass handy, grab some junk mail and read along with me.
“Notice to voters: This document was prepared by (company name appears here), not an official political party organization. Appearance in this mailer does not necessarily imply endorsement of others appearing in this mailer, nor does it imply endorsement of, or opposition to, any issues set forth in this mailer. Appearance is paid for and authorized by each candidate and ballot measure designated by an * (asterisk).”
The address of the consulting firm, or its private mailbox at a UPS store, is listed under the disclaimer in equally small type.
Slate mailing organizations are required by state law to file campaign finance reports that disclose all payments received, all payments made, and the identity of each candidate or measure supported or opposed by each slate mailer.
That’s how reporters found out that Rep. Maxine Waters was selling her endorsement to state candidates through a slate mailing organization operated by her daughter. From 2006 to 2016, Karen Waters was paid $600,000 — from her mother’s campaign funds — to manage the political advertising business.
To get Waters’ “endorsement” on the mailer, candidates had to pay her campaign committee, Citizens for Waters, as much as $45,000. That’s what Gavin Newsom paid when he was running for lieutenant governor, the job he now holds, according to his campaign committee’s 2010 finance reports.
A slate mailing organization can send out “Republican Voter Guides,” “Democratic Voter Guides,” “Independent Voter Guides,” or more likely, all three. It can also send out “recommendations” that appear to come from familiar law enforcement organizations or groups advocating on specific issues. What slate mailing organizations can’t do is infringe on the trademarks of the organizations they try to emulate. Lots of consultants have been sued for using a look-alike GOP elephant logo. Now some use photos of zoo elephants instead.
Whatever your party registration, don’t be fooled by slate mailers. The candidates on them could very well be great choices who are aligned with your views and values, but being on a slate mailer doesn’t prove that. It only proves that their check didn’t bounce.
Susan Shelley is a columnist for the Southern California News Group. Reach her at Susan@SusanShelley.com.
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