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Democrats complaint over GOP voter guide rejected by state elections officials

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 30, 2018

By Jim Camden and Kip Hill The Spokesman-Review

A Republican “voter’s guide” mailed to Stevens County residents is drawing complaints from state Democrats that it violates state laws on deceptive advertising and campaign reporting.

But the Secretary of State’s office ruled Tuesday it doesn’t violate a Washington law prohibiting campaign ads that look too much like the state voter guide.

The Public Disclosure Commission will investigate a separate complaint that it doesn’t follow state laws on reporting expenditures, but that becomes one of more than 400 open complaints the commission has a week before Election Day.

The campaign ad in question is a 20-page booklet called the “2018 Stevens County Voter’s Guide”, which says it covers federal, state and county candidates, with information on initiatives and a sample ballot. At the bottom of the cover, it says it is provided by the county Republican Party.

Inside, the pamphlet only provides information about Republican candidates for the offices and only lists those candidates on the sample ballot.

Voters could be misled into believing the guide was an official government publication mailed by the state, rather than Republican campaign literature, said Dmitri Iglitzin, an attorney for the state Democratic Party.

“The timing of the mailer is also problematic and apparently designed to cause maximum confusion,” Iglitzin said. A voter might conclude that only Republican candidates are running for office.

In fact, some of the county offices covered in the mailer only have GOP candidates, but that’s a result of the strongly Republican county and the state primary system that sends the top two vote-getters to the general election regardless of party.

Iglitzin noted a state law that forbids using campaign materials that are “deceptively similar in design or appearance” to any state voter pamphlet over the past 10 years.

Grant Peterson, Stevens County Republican Party chairman, said the group “took considerable effort” to differentiate their product from the official state voter pamphlet. It has frequent disclaimers citing the party’s central committee as the organization funding the mailer.

“It’d be pretty hard for anyone – very difficult, if not impossible – to think this was a government document,” said Peterson, a former Spokane County commissioner. “It’s a very huge reach for the Democrats, but not necessarily one I’m surprised about.”

Karen Hardy, the Democrat running for the state Senate in the legislative district that includes Stevens County, said the guide looks like an effort to suppress Democratic voters just as the party has ramped up efforts to get candidates to run in the deep red county.

“We really went through a lot of effort to get choices on the ballot,” she said. “I think that was their intent, to only show that there are Republicans running.”

The legal staff and the elections department staff of the Secretary of State’s office looked at the mailer and concluded that law prohibiting similar voter guides doesn’t apply in this case.

“It does not appear in our judgment to be deceptively similar to the voters pamphlet,” said Derrick Nunnally, a spokesman for the office. “It doesn’t look the same in design or appearance. No action will be taken.”

The office has enforced the law against other campaigns as recently as this year, he said.

The cover of the state voter guide is green with the state seal. The Stevens County GOP guide is bright red, which Peterson said was designed represent a “red wave.”

It also uses different paper and clearly says it is from the party, Nunnally said.

The complaint with the PDC involves questions of whether the ad is coordinated with candidates or an independent expenditure to help them, and whether those expenses were reported on time. According to the pamphlet, the congressional and legislative candidates paid for the pages listing statements about their qualifications, but the party paid for the county candidates’ pages.

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