By Matthew Hirsch, Newsdesk.org/The Public Press
• First in a series fact-checking 2008 election ads in San Francisco
• Sidebar: “Swaying Voters at $2 a Word”
For the November 4 election, San Francisco’s voter-information booklet will be packed with dozens of paid arguments around hot-button topics such as housing and public power.
Many of these ballot ads are signed by community and small-business leaders and appear to reflect widespread participation in the public debate.
Yet the people who sign the paid arguments don’t always pay for or submit the ads themselves.
San Francisco legislators changed the election rules in 1997 so voters could find out who was footing the bills. But most voters don’t know that paid arguments are often bundled by professional campaign consultants whose aim is to manufacture a showing of broad support for particular ballot issues, and who sometimes have their own, undisclosed interests.
Whitehurst Campaigns, a local consulting firm, handed in 37 of the 39 paid, signed arguments in favor of Measure A, which would fund construction and renovations at San Francisco General Hospital.
U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Dianne Feinstein, along with local medical workers and even hospital patients, were among the people who signed.
All but one of those 39 ads were paid for by the Committee to Rebuild General Hospital, which in turn receives funding from the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation and two unions that represent local health care workers.
Those details now appear in the voter information pamphlet, but not the names of campaign consultants who submit paid arguments. And John Whitehurst, who runs Whitehurst Campaigns, says disclosing the consultant’s role isn’t necessary.
“I’m not sure how that helps the public. I think the important piece is who wrote [the paid argument], who paid for it, and who signed it,” Whitehurst said.
In some cases, though, the campaign organizer’s role might be significant for voters.
Storefront Political Media, another consulting firm, submitted 14 of 17 paid arguments in favor of Measure L, which would help establish a special court to handle petty crimes in the Tenderloin and other central city neighborhoods.
The founder of Storefront Political Media, Eric Jaye, is an adviser to the mayor, and placed Measure L on the ballot.
Jaye said he generally has no problem with publicly disclosing campaign work, although he questioned it as distracting to voters.
He also said that if campaign organizing is disclosed, the rules should apply equally so they can’t be used to benefit one political group over another.
“It speaks to the unfortunate level of poison in our political culture that we’re even having this conversation,” he said.
Of course, many different groups are already using the ballot booklet for political gain.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. used it in opposition to Measure H, a campaign to promote public power and alternative energy, by funding a group called the Committee to Stop the Blank Check that paid for 22 of 30 arguments against Measure H.
Even organizations that don’t hire campaign consultants and lots of cash on hand can dominate the paid argument pages in the voter information pamphlet.
The San Francisco Tenants Union, for example, turned in 9 of 12 paid arguments in favor of Measure M, which is meant to crack down on harassment by landlords.
BY THE BOOK
Richard Walker, chair of the California Studies Center at U.C. Berkeley, says this is part of a long political tradition.
“San Francisco Bay Area politics has been traditionally well organized through associations and candidate machines,” he says, “whether it’s the old Phil Burton machine or people aligned with Willie Brown.”
Voters in San Francisco have been submitting paid ballot arguments for publication in the city’s election guide for more than eighty years, reflecting the ideal of the public square.
Placing the arguments costs money, currently $200, plus $2 per word. The fee doesn’t nearly cover the cost of producing the election pamphlet, but it’s not intended to.
It’s capped to fit almost any voter’s budget, suggesting an even playing field for public debate — and for response to the official ballot arguments, which are written mostly by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and members of the Board of Supervisors.
John Arntz, the director of San Francisco’s Department of Elections says the voter information pamphlet places a heavy burden on his department’s budget, at a cost of roughly $1,500 per page, but he’s never found support for eliminating the paid arguments.
“People like the idea of having a chance to share their thoughts on the local measures with all the voters in San Francisco,” Arntz said.
Arntz, for one, says the elections department does plenty to make paid arguments accessible to voters by including information in the voter guide about placing paid arguments in future elections.
The department also runs a newspaper ad before the deadline for submitting paid arguments. No other outreach is done and, Arntz says, no more outreach is needed.
But organized campaigns can make one side of the debate appear strongest before voters even begin to weigh the arguments themselves. While the process is open to public scrutiny, and greater disclosure of who’s orchestrating the arguments is not a priority.
“What’s in the local elections code is what we follow,” he said. “The code gives people the opportunity to submit arguments, but there’s no policy saying the reason these arguments are in the voter guide is to initiate a vigorous policy discussion.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The San Francisco 2008 Election Truthiness Report is co-produced by Newsdesk.org and The Public Press, and funded through small donations using the Spot.Us “crowdfunding” Web site. Tune in to KALW 91.7 FM at 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 9, for additional conversation with reporter Matthew Hirsch.