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Video voters’ guide retains analog rules

When Kitsap County’s new online voters’ guide makes its debut this year, candidates will have the opportunity to record video position statements instead of the traditional printed message.

But they better not plan on using their allotted three minutes mentioning their opponents.

“We want to keep these statements as close to those in the printed voter guide as we can,” said Kitsap County Elections Supervisor Dolores Gilmore. “We want the candidates to answer specific questions and avoid defamatory statements.”

The idea of prohibiting candidates from challenging their opponents, however, doesn’t sit well with everyone.

“The reason for the voters’ pamphlet is to help the voters make a decision,” said Kitsap County Republican Chairman Sandra LaCelle, who ran unsuccessfully for county commissioner last year. “It is not accomplishing that, because the content is too restrictive.”

Trent England, an attorney and director of the Citizenship and Governance Center at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, agrees.

“Theoretically the laws were created to avoid libelous statements,” he said. “But since you almost never hear of a candidate being successfully sued for slandering his opponent, that doesn’t really seem like a valid concern.

“As a practical matter,” England said, “I’ve always believed rules like this are simply a way for incumbents to put their challengers at a competitive disadvantage.”

Not every county chooses to interpret the stature as narrowly as Kitsap County.

“The state Elections Division and county elections offices typically do no editing of voters’ pamphlet statements,” said Washington State Secretary of State spokesman David Ammons, “except in cases of profanity and potentially libelous statements. In those cases, they would ask the candidate to revise their statements and would let the opposing candidate know what they were saying about them.

“But that happens only rarely, I’m told,” he said. “Mostly, it’s ‘voter beware.’ Candidates can say pretty much whatever they want in campaigns — including the voter’s pamphlet statements — including running down or even lying about their opponents.”

In a letter meant to clarify the policy, Kitsap County Auditor Walt Washington said, “The goal of the voters’ pamphlet is to provide a forum by which voters would receive straightforward presentations outside what they receive via television, radio and other forms of media advertising. We have historically worked diligently toward political neutrality given that we serve all citizens.”

Discontinuing publication of the printed version of voters’ pamphlet is part of the county’s cost-cutting strategy. It will be replaced by an online version of the guide, where voters enter their name and get consistent information about the races in which they are voting.

In the pamphlet, candidates are asked to provide biographical information, and answer specific questions questions about their background, experience and goals if elected.

They are allowed 250 words for this.

The video version will have the same limitations, and candidates will need to answer the questions in three minutes or less.

Also remaining is a Revised Code of Washington (RCW) item that Kitsap County interprets as requiring candidates to speak for themselves and not against their opponent, and that any “libelous or inappropriate” statements will be rejected.

“Any statement by a candidate shall be limited to those about himself or herself,” the rule reads.

LaCelle, however, feels this is too broad a distinction, and that it is often hard to determine where the person ends and the office begins.

“We’re told we can criticize our opponent’s policy,” she said. “But if they are known to be indecisive or inflexible, that affects how they perform their job, and it should be brought up.”

There are ways to finesse this, where a candidate might say, “I am flexible,” instead of, “My opponent is inflexible.”

Additionally, candidates can freely criticize their opponents during public meetings about any topic.

LaCelle said the policy devalues the voter pamphlet, since it is not consistent with the rest of the candidate’s campaign material.

“There are some points I made in public speeches about my opponent,” she said. “People would ask me why the statements were not in the voters’ pamphlet and I answered that I was not allowed to include them.

“When this happens the candidate appears to be inconsistent,” she said. “And the pamphlet turns into a vanilla product that really doesn’t give the voter any useful information.”

Gilmore said that restricting information about the opponent is meant to control defamatory statements, that is easier to restrict all such information rather than have to determine what is defamatory and what is not.

“This is not the right platform to attack your opponent,” she said.

Added Washington, “If you want to say negative things about your opponent, you can do it in other places.”

LaCelle, an attorney, knows about defamation and its limits and said, “I don’t want to see the county get sued.”

Still, she thinks candidates and the public should be able to determine what is appropriate.

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