Voters’ Right to Know Undermined by High Candidate Statement Fees, SoS Conflict of Interest


Michael Feinstein
2018 Green candidate for Secretary of State; and former Santa Monica Mayor and City Councilmember

Can we really say we have a democracy, if the only candidates that voters have information about, is those who can ‘pay to play’? Yet that’s the case here in California, where candidate space in the official statewide Voter Information Guide (and in the county sample ballots) – the only pieces of information that go to every voter – must be purchased for a expensive fee.

That principle – that basic access to voters must bought – came with the passage of Proposition 34 in 2000, an initiative written and placed on the ballot by the state legislature, and opposed at the time by most good government groups.

Proposition 34 stated that state and federal candidates who accept voluntary expenditure limits may also purchase space to place a 250-word statement in the Voter Information Guide. However Proposition 34 was silent upon what basis/values that cost would be calculated. Instead, it left setting that fee to an administrative decision by the Secretary of State  for statewide office, and by county registrars for other state and federal races.

Voters Rights Issue

Before Proposition 34, such candidate statements in the statewide Voter Information Guide were free, based upon a ruling by former Secretary of State Tony Miller. That meant all candidates on the ballot for state and federal office could publish a full candidate statement without financial limitation; and perhaps more importantly from a voters rights perspective, that all voters would receive such information about all candidates on their ballot.

Since the passage of Proposition 34, the Secretary of State charged $20/word to start, then raised it to $25/word in 2010. This escalation in cost by the Secretary of State has the the practical effect of making the statements too expensive for many candidates, especially since the full fee is required early in the campaign, even before the close of the candidate qualification period) The result has been that instead of a full 250-word statement, many candidates are only able to purchase a few dozen words, and in many cases, at best a sentence or two.

This has the practical effect of denying voters basic information about many candidates on their ballot each election cycle.  Is that really in the public interest?  If not, what *should* be the basis for this cost, given that Proposition 34 was silent about it?

Since Proposition 34’s passage, there has been an assumption with state and county election departments that something approaching ‘cost recovery’ is appropriate for the cost. That is a transactional mindset that focuses on the cost/benefit of the candidate purchasing the statement, and upon the economics of printing a ballot statement as a self-funding mechanism. But it ignores the negative effect upon our democracy of the resultant lack of information to the voters.

A voters’ rights approach would suggest that the public is entitled to a base level of information about *all* ballot-qualified candidates, and that the cost of candidate statements should not preclude that information reaching the voters.

 

Conflict of Interest Issue

Because the cost of the candidate statement is also decided administratively, there is also a direct conflict of interest with this law, with the Secretary of State being the person who decides the statewide fees.

Because the cost of the statement favors some candidates and not others, setting the cost of the statement is a political decision with direct political implications. This creates a direct conflict of interest for the Secretary of State, because the decision about the cost of the statement can affect who can/will run directly against the Secretary of State. Similarly the candidate statements fees set by county registrars, whose offices often receive direction from the Secretary of State’s office – can affect who runs for the state legislature, which then can vote on policies advocated by the Secretary of State and/or affecting the office of the Secretary of State. The same conflict affects the Governor’s race, an office that can veto said bills, and an office for whom the Secretary of State also sets the candidate statement fee.

Time for the Legislature to Act

In a vibrant democracy, the cost/difficulty of having a full candidate statement in the statewide voter guide (and the county sample ballots) should be decided via a transparent public process through statute or initiative, rather than left administratively to someone who by definition has a conflict of interest. Since it was the legislature that originally placed Proposition 34 on the ballot, it is the legislature’s responsibility to fix it.

Section 85601 of the Government Code – the section that governs setting the candidate statement cost – should be amended to put voters’ rights first, by ensuing that all candidates who qualify for the ballot will have a full ballot statement in the voter guide at a truly minimal cost. This should especially be the case in the on-line versions of the candidate statements, where there are no extra printing costs. Yes there are translation costs involved even where there is no print version.  But the cost of funding these and extra paper space in the voter guides are infinitesimal rounding errors in the state $183 billion budget, and are especially minimal when considering the public’s right to know.

An additional positive effect of such a change would be to reward grassroots candidates trying to qualify for the ballot via the signature-in-lieu of filing fee route, because each signature would not only be worth its value in-lieu of the (expensive) filing fee, but would gain the right to a minimal cost candidate statement.  In other words, if the signature-in-lieu route is going to be a truly viable alternative, instead of just window dressing to produce the illusion of fairness for candidates who are not well-funded, then the difficult signature-in-lieu route should also return sufficient value to merit the undertaking.

The Value of Democracy

Ultimately these issues raise the question of how much is our democracy worth?

California already traditionally underfunds its elections, with county registrars especially feeling the squeeze. That needs to be remedied in its own right. But we shouldn’t make it worse by accepting expensive ‘pay to play’ access to our voter information guides. With the size of our state budget – and with the debates about how that money is allocated and spent – shouldn’t we at least dedicate a tiny fraction of our budget up front, so that voters are well-informed about those seeking election to make major decisions on our behalf?

It would be easy for the legislature not to take up this idea – they already benefit from the mega-fundraising machine supporting incumbents.  They don’t have to worry about paying for their candidate statements, nor about the expensive fees to access the ballot itself. But our legislators – and our Secretary of State and Governor – were elected to put the public’s interest first, not their own.  Its time they took that responsibility to place voters rights first in access to the voter information guides and sample ballots, rather their own as candidates.

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