(Editor's note: Marga Lacabe runs the Chris Crow campaign and has made other endorsements through blog postings on Patch. Any candidate, or any reader, who wants to blog on Patch is encouraged to do so and get equal space. Follow this link to start your own blog, whether as a series or as a single posting.)
If you are a frequent voter, chances are that you will get a lot of political mail this month. Much will come from propositions, less from candidates. 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 this June 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. He won.
In San Leandro, two City Council candidates have so far disclosed that they have paid for placement on a slate mailer.
Jim Prola paid $700 to be included in the “Election Digest” discussed above and $650 to be on “Your Voter Guide“.
“Your Voter Guide” is also based in Southern California and it’s run by political consultant Jill Barad. It also targets Democrats.
Benny Lee, meanwhile, took the opposite approach and paid $500 to the be included in the “Budget Watchdogs Newsletter” slate mailer and $150 to be in the “California Voter Guide”, both targeted to Republicans. Given that Lee told the San Leandro Times that he did not support pension reform, it’s somewhat ironic that he would chose to be on the mailer of a (fake) organization that purports to fight “wasteful and abusive fiscal practices of government agencies, officials and staff”.
Of course, the candidates may still appear on other slate mailers that they had not paid for 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, slate mailers don't seem to make that much of a difference. It might help with name awareness, but not to a significant extent.
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".
Andother 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, I actually did appear on a commercial slate mailer on the 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 asterix) and this particular mailer (the Election Digest discussed above) 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.