My experience with the initiative process has made me aware that improvements are needed in order to reduce the amount of misinformation voters receive.
During the last election, voters saw only paraphrased versions of each ballot measure rather than the language that voters signed their names to during the signature gathering stage. The paraphrasing by the lieutenant governor's office was so politically biased that two out of four initiatives resulted in lawsuits. Tampering of the ballot language by the lieutenant governor's office should be legally prohibited.
The state distributed over 325,000 Voter Information Pamphlets -- one per voter household. In order for the pamphlets to serve as an aid in making good decisions, voters require that the information contained therein be credible. However, the state assumes no responsibility for its accuracy. Indeed, it actively discourages opposing sides from seeing each other's contributed statements prior to publication. Even when legal counsel brings outrageously false claims to the state's attention before going to print, it ignores them. The law needs to be changed so that the state can be held accountable.
During the last election, voters were besieged with misinformation in the media. It was so blatant that many voters were thoroughly disgusted. As citizens, our right to say just about anything is protected under freedom of speech law, even if what is said is not true. It is an important right, and one that is exercised every day by individuals speaking out in the news, in letters to the editor, at town meetings and in other forums.
However, unscrupulous marketing firms have taken to using the law to deliberately deceive voters for financial gain. I experienced this firsthand when Alaskans for Professional Wildlife Management inundated voters with bogus claims opposing a ballot measure that would ban bear baiting. APWM misled voters into thinking Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals "extremists" were leading the campaign. It created fears that angry brown bears might appear in people's back yards and that voters could face a year in jail for putting out bird feeders if the measure passed. Greenpeace and PETA had no involvement, baiting of brown bears has been illegal for decades, and the issue had nothing to do with feeding birds.
APWM's most extreme deception was a glossy postcard that read, "Don't let outsiders change Alaska. Vote 'NO' on Ballot Measure 3." The message reeked with hypocrisy. APWM was registered at the Alaska Public Office Commission by Oregon-based Pac/West Communications, a company that was paid nearly a half million dollars to run the opposing campaign. Most of APWM's money came from political action groups located outside Alaska.
The group supporting the initiative that I belonged to, Citizens United Against Bear Baiting, was anything but an Outside group. It was founded in Alaska and run by Alaskans, and it received most of its monies from Alaska individuals and organizations. These facts were a matter of public record and were certainly known to Pac/West Communications.
How can the cheaters be stopped? If all paid political advertising were covered under truth-in-advertising law, then those that abuse the system could be taken to court in a class-action suit by the voters who have been deliberately deceived. Have that happen a time or two, and all the other cheaters would pretty quickly start to think twice about making paid advertising claims they couldn't possibly substantiate.
Can you imagine what that would be like? Honest elections. Voters fed up by the volume of over-the-top advertising spin regaining their faith in the system. It would be wonderful.
Paul Joslin is a wildlife biologist and was co-chair of Citizens United Against Bear Baiting