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