When it comes to deliberately trying to mislead voters, a campaign mailer in support of Proposition 6 — the state gas tax repeal measure — is in a class of its own.
Government teachers would do well to get a hold of a copy, as an example of just how unscrupulous political campaigns can be.
This isn’t some run-of-the-mill sleazy flier making false accusations about the other side. The ad is deliberately designed to appear to be an official government notice.
It carries the bold headline — “ELECTION BALLOT **CORRECTION**” — and proceeds to give the “correct” title for the Proposition 6, which it lists as “Gas Tax Repeal Initiative.”
Here’s the actual Prop 6 title on the ballot: “Eliminates Certain Road Repair and Transportation Funding.”
Yes on 6 supporters have a legitimate message they’re trying to get across: They want voters to know that Proposition 6 is about repealing a tax they believe to be unfair. They don’t believe the wording on the ballot makes that clear.
But why not say that?
Instead, the campaign tries to trick voters into believing a political ad is some sort of official government notice, prompting newspapers to run stories to clarify that it’s a campaign mailer. (We’ve got to ask, was this some brilliant strategy to get some publicity for an underfunded campaign?)
San Luis Obispo County Clerk/Record Tommy Gong mentioned the ad in a briefing to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
“They’re really pushing the envelope here and making it confusing for the voters,” Gong later told The Tribune.
He also advised voters to exercise caution when reading political mailers — a warning borne out by a recent letter to the editor sent to The Tribune.
Here’s the first sentence of the letter: “Did you see the retraction about the title of Prop. 6 for the gas tax on the ballot!”
So what can be done about false and misleading political ads?
Not much. The California Business and Professions Code forbids false or misleading advertising of products and services, but it doesn’t apply to political campaigns.
An article from Time magazine explains why: “Candidates are not held to the same commercial standard (as businesses), and the reason is simple: their statements and advertisements are considered ‘political speech,’ which falls under the protection of the First Amendment.”
California law does require campaigns to disclose who paid for their ads.
Also, certain types of ads must carry a disclaimer stating that they are not an official ballot or an official county voter information guide.
The Proposition 6 ad complies; at the very bottom, there’s verbiage stating that it’s not an official ballot, and that it was funded by Reform California, a group based in San Diego. But as with many political ads, the print is so small that some voters might need a magnifying glass to read the fine print at the bottom.
So here’s some parting advice: Keep your reading glasses handy. The election is still a month away.