Thursday, October 23, 2008

Pat McCarthy defiled polls by signing letter

by Peter Callaghan. The News Tribune. Tacoma, Wash.: Oct 23, 2008. pg. B.1
Full Text (655 words)
(Copyright (c) 2008 The News Tribune)

It wouldn't be a real Pierce County election without some Shameless Self-Promotion using tax dollars.

County Council members being "interviewed" on the government cable channel. Creative name-dropping in the voters pamphlet. Mailed invitations to town hall meetings in the middle of campaign season.

Call it SSP, the incumbents' edge.

But until now the promotion had stopped short of the polling place and its current equivalent, the vote-by-mail envelope. Not anymore.

Inside each ballot packet is a survey addressed to "Dear Voter." It asks them to fill out a short survey explaining how they feel about the new ranked-choice voting system. It's signed "Pat McCarthy Pierce County Auditor."

In case you vote-in-person folks are feeling left out, the same survey will be handed out at each polling place.

The idea is not just to gauge voter opinion. When she used a similar survey to ask people about the "top two" primary in 2004, it kept angry voters from writing nasty messages on the ballots themselves. McCarthy, who wasn't on the ballot that election, used the information when she testified to state legislators about unhappiness with top two.

All this would be fine, of course, except for one thing. McCarthy is in the midst of a close campaign for county executive. Her last-minute boost in name identification has the other candidates complaining.

McCarthy says she is the auditor and it's her job to do things like this. And state elections supervisor Nick Handy has her back, saying he sees nothing wrong with it.

Since the survey was done in the spirit of gaining understanding, let me try to explain to Mrs. McCarthy and Mr. Handy what's wrong with it.

The ballot envelope is the polling place. It should be an electioneering-free zone just as polling places are, by law. Try walking into a polling place with a Barack Obama T-shirt or a John McCain button. The election workers are supposed to tell you to take it outside until the button is gone or the shirt is covered.

Would such passive campaigning change the result of the election? Probably not. But after months and months of loud and often nasty campaigning, Washington state thinks the ballot place should be a sanctuary of sorts. And the last thing we need is a competition where each side must match the polling-place-by-polling-place campaigning of the other.

We have grown cynical. We roll our eyes when elected officials use their office to get their name out there. But McCarthy has shown great restraint, at least since being elected herself and especially when compared to her predecessor. When Cathy Pearsall-Stipek had her name in the voters pamphlet five times and her picture three times, it meant only one thing - she wasn't on the ballot that year. If she was, the number would be higher.

When McCarthy was Pearsall-Stipek's deputy, McCarthy's name was plastered in the pamphlet and on mailings as she was preparing to replace her boss, who was term-limited.

But the current voters pamphlet has her name listed just once, other than in the section on county executive candidates and an explanation of how to mark ballots where she has equal billing to Shawn Bunney, Mike Lonergan and Calvin Goings.

Well done, I thought. Voters will be sensitive enough this year given McCarthy's role in counting the ballots and declaring a winner. Why
give them more cause for suspicion?

Then came the mailed ballots.

McCarthy claims she has the right to put her name on materials like this. Maybe she does. But the County Council required that no names appear on ranked choice voting informational materials, and this should count.

There's a difference between what elected officials can do and what they should do. The survey would be fine without her name, so I can conclude only that the reason to include it was self-promotion in a close campaign.

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