Oct 162012

Election Digest slate mailer from June 2012

If you are a frequent voter, chances are that you will get a lot of political mail this month.  Most will be mailers touting a candidate or promoting or opposing a proposition or measure.  But you will also get at least one slate mailer, probably more.  These mailers come with titles that suggest they are sponsored by specific organizations. “Firefighters recommend,” “The Nurses guide”, “Democratic guide”, etc. etc.  In reality, they are commercial ventures owned by private companies that sell space on their slates to political candidates.  Usually candidates for the top offices are included for free, both because the candidates wouldn’t pay to be on the slates and because the other candidates want to be associated with them.  But pretty much anyone running for local office will have to pay – how much will depend on the office (the higher the office, the greater the expense) and the number of voters who will receive the slate mailer.  In addition to paid candidates, the slate mailers include recommendations for positions to be taken on particular propositions.  These are usually paid as well.

While slate mailers can seem partisan – by using the name of a political party or a particular cause or by the choice of presidential/governor candidate they feature -, in reality they will take anyone who pays. The “Election Digest” slate mailer, for example, usually features Democratic top-ticket candidates, but it drew attention in Southern California when it included both President Obama and a candidate for judge who is a well-known “birther” and had been working to disqualify Obama from appearing on the state ballots.   The judge won.

In San Leandro, several candidates for the 2014 election are paying to be included in mailers. Deborah Cox and Corina Lopez have both sunk over $3K in mailers.  They will both appear in the “Voter Guide“, which comes in Democratic,  Republican and independent versions featuring the national and state partisan candidates for each party, included for free, and the local candidates that pay for inclusion.  Thus you may very well find Cox or Lopez appear in both the Democratic voter guide and the Republican cone.  Cox paid $1249 to be included in this guide, while Lopez just $712.

Cox and Lopez will also appear in the  “Californians Vote Green“, for which Cox paid $992 while Lopez paid just $422.  Cox and Lopez will be joined by Mayoral Candidate Pauline Cutter in the COPS voter guide. Cox got a good deal on this one, she only paid $741 while both Cutter and Lopez ponied up $889.  The three are also featured together in the  “California Latino Voters Guide,” which is sent just to Latino voters, though only Lopez is Latino.  Perhaps that’s why she only had to pay $350, while Cox and Cutter paid $400.

Shut out of the apparently more popular guides, District 1 candidate David Anderson paid $500 to appear in the Democratic Voters Choice slate mailer. I look forward to seeing him there.

Of course, the candidates may still appear on other slate mailers that they had not paid for – or disclosed – by the end of September.

Do Slate Mailers work?

Candidates use them because they are cheaper than sending their own mailers (a mailer sent just to the most frequent voters in San Leandro will cost about $9,000) and because they fear that if they don’t put their names on them, their opponents might.   Experts believe that mailers do work.  If nothing else, it helps build name recognition for the candidate and associates him with some cause or top-tier candidate voters support.

In my experience, however, commercial slate mailers don’t seem to make that much of a difference.  It might help with name awareness, but not to a significant extent.  Part of the reason is that there are competing slate mailers, part that they are so cheaply printed, and part that they offer no actual reasons why anyone should vote for any of the candidates.

Should Candidates Pay to be on Slate?

In general I would say the answer is “no”.  It’s definitely unethical for a candidate to pay to be on a slate that communicates a message different from her own or that attempts to deceive voters as to who is supporting her.  It’s less of an issue to pay to be on a slate that only includes certain candidates with common characteristics, such as “candidates endorsed by the Democratic Party”.

Another problem is that slate mailers associate a candidate with others who may have drastically different ideas that his own.  That association may end up being harmful.  There is also something unsavory about being on a slate that advocates positions on propositions that go against your own.

As you can see on the graphic above, I actually did appear on a commercial slate mailer on my last election, as part of a group of people running together for 10 available seats.  My group did not have to pay for placement (thus the lack of an asterisk) and this particular mailer is not particularly deceitful, but I’m still less than happy to have appeared on it – and I’m pretty sure it made little difference at the polls.

 This article was updated for the Nov. 2014 election

  4 Responses to “Slate Mailers: Or how do you spell “Voter Deception””

  1. I just got the “Your Ballot Buide” slate mailer.

    It lists Ursula Reed and Benny Lee as having paid to be on the mailer – and yet neither candidate disclosed it on their last campaign finance disclosure report. Now, Jim Prola doesn’t have an asterisk next to his name – which would indicate that the had not paid to be on this mailer – but he has disclosed paying for it.

    At the stop of the slate mailer is “No on L”. The opposition to L comes from Tom Silva, of the California Apartments Association. Silva, coincidentally, also gave money to Reed, Lee and Prola. And while we know that *someone* paid to include Reed and Lee’s names on the mailer, we don’t know if it was them or if it was Silva.

    This all just goes to my point that slate mailers are deceitful – but also a way to get away from disclosing financial contributions to candidates.

  2. A couple of things. First, several studies including one by Stanford University have shown that slate mailers are more effective than typical political mail. There are two reasons for that. First is that some voters read everything and know what a slate mailer is and for those voters it is simply a smaller message. Another group however believe falsely that they have to vote for every office on the ballot for their vote to count, so they figure if someone is on a slate mailer, they are at least somewhat serious and won’t be a complete bozo. But the question I have is how are the mailers any more deceitful than other political mail? For years I have watched candidates try and claim they were something that they really were not. The only difference with slate cards is because they involve a group of people combining resources, they make it cheaper to get a message out, which is a good thing overall.

    • I looked at the Stanford study before I wrote this posting, but I didn’t refer to it because I don’t think it’s in the least indicative of how voters behave in the real world.

      In the study, participants were told that they were participating in a study of the effects of campaign mail, they were paid $10 and they were handed out a “voter’s guide” and a ballot to be returned after the election. Both the ballot and the voter’s guide were based on the election current to the study. Participants were told that they could refer to the voting guide but did not have to.

      The problem with this set up is that by having the researchers give the slate to the participants and explicitly tell them they were studying the effects of campaign advertising, they drew an artificial amount of attention to that particular voter’s guide and potentially, credibility. The other problem is that as the participants were paid for the study, those who returned the questionnaire might have been more likely to tell the researchers what they thought they wanted to hear. In any case, I don’t think we can extrapolate the results to how real voters react when they receive a random slate card on the mail.

      You are right that a lot of political mail is deceitful – but a lot of it is not. Indeed, it’d be interesting to see how much of a correlation there is between candidates who pay to be in a slate car and candidates that send deceitful mailers. Just thinking back to this election, both Reed and Lee had deceptive mailers. I don’t remember if Prola did, but there was another dirty shenanigan his campaign manager participated in that I should blog about at some point.

      • I think anyone could see the effectiveness or lack thereof if they wanted to talk to people who work at polling places and to ask them how many voters came in with ballot guides. Most voters still use their sample ballots, but I don’t think there is anything more significant in terms of influencing voters than slate cards and that’s based on talking to people who actually see what people are bringing with them when they vote.

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