TWIN FALLS • This fall, expect to see a taxpayer-funded voter’s guide show up in your mailbox.
Before you read it, know the information isn’t vetted.
This year, the Secretary of State’s Office is spending about $250,000 on a voter’s guide sent to every house and post office box in the state. Those guides contain arguments from campaign strategists both for and against ballot initiatives.
Though the guide is meant to educate voters, the secretary of state has no legal authority to fact-check or ensure the information is accurate, and no ability to allow campaigns to edit what they’ve submitted after the deadline.
That means campaigns have unfiltered communication with voters, funded by taxpayers.
Is Fact-checking Censorship?
This general election, the guide includes arguments for and against Propositions 1, 2 and 3, otherwise known as the referendum on the Students Come First education reform laws passed by the Idaho Legislature in 2011.
In the guide, opponents say that Proposition 3, the laptops for students legislation, is an unfunded mandate — a claim contested by the law’s proponents.
In August, Idaho Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath told the Associated Press that the Legislature is statutorily required to fund the mandates. (In response, campaign strategist Brian Cronin claimed the $60 million program lacks stable long-term funding, even if the state is required to fund it.)
Despite the controversy, the argument appears in the voter’s guide. But there is no provision in Idaho Statute that allows the secretary of state to edit or fact-check statements for accuracy.
And that’s how the Secretary of State’s Office wants to keep it, said Chief Deputy Secretary of State Tim Hurst.
“The problem that we get into is when we start editing them, then how far do you go? And then it becomes... are we, in fact, censoring them?” Hurst said.
The Secretary of State’s Office does do minor edits like spellchecking, Hurst said.
“But we have no authority to censor them, and that’s what some people would interpret (fact-checking) as,” he said.
The guide does say that the views expressed are not those of the secretary of state, Hurst said. The guide also allows for 250-word rebuttals from each side to counter claims.
No Edits Allowed
The statute also doesn’t allow for contributors to edit or change their submissions after the deadlines have passed, even if the arguments haven’t yet been printed.
According to emails and letters obtained by the Times-News, Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, asked the secretary of state to remove a 2011 quote of his that the Idaho Education Association included in a rebuttal argument against Proposition 3.
“I’m voting against this bill because... not one stakeholder is supporting it — not the superintendents, not the school boards, not the teachers, not the parents. Every single stakeholder... has testified opposed to it,” the quote says.
Cameron said the comment in a public forum, and it was quoted in newspapers. But in his letter to the secretary of state, Cameron pointed out he was debating the original legislation, not the effort to repeal Proposition 3, and that the quote is out of context.
In an email to the secretary of state, Idaho Education Association Executive Director Robin Nettinga said she would respect a decision to edit the argument.
In his response to Cameron, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa told Cameron that he had no legal authority to allow edits and rejected Cameron’s request.
The Only Exception
There has been one exception. In 1994, one initiative sought to prohibit protections for gays and lesbians in Idaho code.
One of the arguments submitted for the voter’s guide claimed an Idaho deputy attorney general was a homosexual, Hurst said. The secretary of state took out the man’s name after he threatened to sue for libel. (That November, voters narrowly defeated the initiative.)
But because Cameron’s comments aren’t libelous and were made in a public forum, this is a different situation, Hurst said.
Nettinga and Cameron both said Nettinga asked if she could use Cameron’s quote, but there was a misunderstanding on how it would be used.
Both contacted the Secretary of State’s Office with the request to edit the argument on Aug. 2, one day after the deadline for submission and before any of the arguments had been published.
But Ysursa said he was bound by both code and precedent to not allow the edits.
“After consulting with the office of the Attorney General and based on my own analysis, I can only conclude that I do not have the statutory authority to grant your request,” Ysursa wrote.
Cameron said he understood the decision, but was frustrated, as he had hoped to stay out of the referendum debate.
“In my opinion, there would have been no harm whatsoever to allow those quotes to be removed and allow (the campaign) to rewrite that paragraph,” Cameron said Friday.