Under a new rule adopted last week by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC), candidates for citywide office will soon be allowed to mention their opponents in the city voters' guide. When asked if this rule change would also allow candidates to lie about their opponents, SEEC executive director Wayne Barnett didn't hesitate: "Yes."
"It's not ours to police," Barnett quickly elaborated, explaining that the SEEC does not have or want the broad authority to edit candidate statements. SEEC rules have always barred obscene, profane, or clearly defamatory language, Barnett says, but nobody wants to get into the messy business of fact-checking candidates. "You've always been allowed to lie about yourself," points out Barnett. The only difference now is that you can also lie about your opponent.
It's a privilege candidates for legislative and statewide office have long enjoyed, but seldom abused. According to secretary of state spokesman Dave Ammons, there is no state law or regulation prohibiting candidates from criticizing their opponent in the state voters' pamphlet, but when it happens, the elections division contacts the candidate being attacked and leaves it up to them whether they want to raise a stink. Revising a statement requires going to court, says Ammons, and "that is a very high bar, given the First Amendment." State senator Pam Roach did exactly that in 2010, suing a Republican primary opponent over his voters' pamphlet statement, eventually winning minor changes.
The good news for Seattle voters is that the rule change also allows candidates to tell the truth about their opponents. Last year, then municipal court challenger Ed McKenna had his voters' guide statement rejected for violating the old rule by truthfully asserting that his opponent "was rated the very lowest in a recent King County Bar Association judicial evaluation survey." That's the sort of useful information you'd think voters might want to know.
"Elections are about contrast," says Barnett, who believes that the rule change is ultimately for the best. And who better to compare and contrast the candidates than the candidates themselves?