Slate mailers leave even savvy voters scratching their heads

Susan Clark got duped. Three days before, the special election this
self-described “sophisticated Democrat” from San Francisco who reads three
newspapers a day filled out her absentee ballot, intending to drop it off at
her local polling place on Nov. 8.

But on election morning, Clark was listening to talk-radio when a caller
said that he had been sent a slate mailer, a piece of direct mail with
endorsements on all the propositions, that had a picture of State Treasurer
Phil Angelides urging voters to “say no on Schwarzenegger’s special election

No surprise there, thought Clark. She had used that very same piece of mail
as her ballot guide. But then the caller told the host that the same piece
of mail also had endorsed Proposition 78, the drug industry-backed
prescription drug proposal–and had opposed labor-supported Proposition 79
and 80. Angelides endorsed the other side of each of those three measures.

“I am thinking, ‘Oh s–t!'” said Clark. “I see Phil’s picture, and I think
this is an official endorsement by Angelides of everything on this mailer.”
Clark ran to her garage, rummaged through the recycling bin to discovered
what she already knew was true. She had been had.

And if she got duped by the slate mail, says Clark, so did many others.

Packaged to look like it is an official party platform, slate mail is, more
often than not, produced by for-profit organizations that auction off their
collection of endorsements to the highest bidder.

In the waning weeks of a campaign, thousands of such mailers are stuffed
into voters’ mailboxes with innocuous and informative-sounding titles like
Voter Information Guide (the piece that “tricked” Clark), Independent Voters
League, and Your Ballot Guide.

The slate mail operations take place deep in the trenches of campaign
warfare. Every campaign observer and operative Capitol Weekly interviewed–on
and off the record–decried them as one of the dirtiest elements of electoral

“They are designed to deliberately mislead voters to make them think they
represent some bona fide political organization,” said Kim Alexander,
president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonpartisan voter
information group.

The fine print of every slate mail piece does say that it was not prepared
by “an official political party organization” and that “appearance in this
mailer does not necessarily imply endorsement by others appearing in this

But that is hardly enough, according to Robert Stern, president of the
campaign watchdog group the Center for Governmental Studies.

“The bottom line is it should read–but doesn’t–‘Voters beware,'” he said.
The picture of Angelides, and his endorsements, appeared in the Voter
Information Guide mailer alongside the drug company’s endorsements,
according to campaign spokesman Dan Newman, because the treasurer was
dedicated to using “every available way” to beat back the governor’s

An Angelides-controlled campaign account paid Voter Information Guide
$33,600 for the spot in the mailer.

Capitol Weekly tried to contact the publisher of Voter Information Guide,
but the telephone number listed through the secretary of state had been

The Voter Information Guide was not the only slate mail that Angelides paid
to join that featured the drug companies. His campaign also contributed
$12,000 to a slate mail organization called Your Ballot Guide, which
received $40,0000 from the pharmaceutical companies’ campaign, according to
campaign finance reports.

Jill Barad, who published Your Ballot Guide and operates the oldest
Democratic slate mail house in the state, said that though “most times we
have the Democratic point of view” she still included the drug companies in
her mailer.

“It’s a business decision,” she said. And for most slate mail houses, most
decisions are business decisions.

For political campaigns, there are two major advantages to using slate mail.
The first is simple economics: It is cheaper to share the cost of sending
out literature with other campaigns–and by having multiple endorsements on
one “slate,” each endorsement carries greater weight with the voter.

The second advantage is more controversial: By not sending the mail
directly, a campaign avoids having to state who exactly paid for the mail.
All that is required is an asterisk that identifies which propositions paid
to be included in the mailing–not which individuals or groups actually
funded the piece.

Thus, nowhere on the Voter Information Guide could Clark find that drug

companies had helped finance the mailing.
“This is not transparent,” says Clark “I think somebody should stand up and
represent the voter’s perspective.”

According to slate mail supporters the asterisk is sufficient disclosure for
voters to know who is backing the slate.

But that is far too presumptuous, says Alexander.

“The people who run slate mail organizations are counting on people
overlooking the small print.” she says.

Campaign watchdogs have tried to reform the slate mail system as recently as
1996, when voters approved Proposition 208. That measure required that three
dollar signs–$$$–replace the asterisks on paid endorsements and that the
top two contributors, if they had given at least $50,000 to the slate mail
publisher, be identified.

But the measure was tied up in lawsuits, and eventually thrown out by the
courts as a violation of slate publisher’s freedom of political speech.
Dan Lowenstein, a UCLA law professor who represented the slate mailers in
the suit, says that the measure would have put “intolerable burdens for
slate mail publishers.”

But even Lowenstein believes that the juxtaposition of candidate photos with
endorsements with which they disagree is confusing for voters.

“Just because [politicians’ photos] are all there doesn’t mean they support
each other. I would make [that disclaimer] more prominent,” said Lowenstein.
“That’s the way in which slate mail could be misleading.”

In this year’s special election campaign, no group has used the intricacies
of slate mail law more effectively than the pharmaceutical companies.

According to Anthony Wright, who headed the labor-backed Yes on 79 campaign,
the drug companies spent $1.5 million on 30 different slate mailers sent to
voters, “left, right and center.”

None of those mailers were required to report major funding from the drug

“The number one thing that moves people is that the drug companies support
78 and are opposed to 79,” says Wright. “That’s not disclosed. The drug
companies are willfully trying to hide their backing of these slate

The most controversial piece that the pharmaceutical companies produced was
titled “Black Woman’s Political Guide” and prominently featured photographs
of African-American Congresswomen Barbara Lee, D-Berkeley, Maxine Waters,
D-Los Angeles, Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Torrance Diane Watson, D-Los
Angeles, and six African-American state lawmakers.

The mailer, targeted at Democrats, urged a “no” vote on the governor’s four
initiatives, but a “yes” vote on Proposition 78, and a “no” of 79, despite
the fact that most of the legislators depicted had endorsed Proposition 79,
not 78.

One such lawmaker was Barbara Lee who was “disturbed” and “angry” with the

“To have her picture associated with something she has not endorsed is very
confusing and misleading,” said Chloe Drew, a spokeswoman for Lee, who said
the congresswoman is considering a lawsuit. “It was really very dirty

Using images of elected officials that have not endorsed the slate mail’s
cause is nothing new. In an infamous 1984 slate mailer in conservativeOrange County, a Democratic consultant sent out a mailer urging residents to
vote for President Ronald Reagan, to vote for other recognizable southern
California Republicans, and his candidate, a Democratic judge.

The judge won.

The controversial slate mail practice of Democrats sending mail to
Republicans to urge them to support Republican ballot measures–with one
exception–continued this year, as well.

As Capitol Weekly reported last week, the Democrat-backed No on 77 committee funded a slate mail piece–sent to Republicans–that recommended a “yes” vote on three of the governor’s four special election initiatives.

“Support Arnold’s Reform Agenda, but Vote No on 77,” read the mailer.

And because the mail was sent through an independent slate mail house, titled Citizens for Good Government, the fact that the Democrat-supported No on 77 committee had contributed the lion’s share of money for the piece went unnoted in the mailer.

Tom Kaptain, who heads the Citizens for Good Government says of his
Democrat-funded mailer sent to Republicans, “I hate to see the whole thing
get spun like its something tricky or unusual.”

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