Washington State elections officials could rein in what candidates say about their opponents in voters’ pamphlets. (Washington State Secretary of State)

Washington State elections officials could rein in what candidates say about their opponents in voters’ pamphlets. (Washington State Secretary of State)

What candidates say, wear in voter pamphlets may change

Lawmakers seek uniformity in how counties and state treat candidate statements and ballot arguments

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers are adjusting the lines on what candidates can say about opponents in voter pamphlets after retreating from an attempt to ban trash-talking altogether.

They also want to bar those hopefuls from wearing hats, buttons, or clothing with insignia or symbols in the photos they submit with their candidate statements.

And they are looking to curb use of graphs, charts, and cartoons by those arguing for and against ballot measures in the informational guides mailed to registered voters each election.

The changes are part of House Bill 1453, a measure intended to harmonize the way candidate statements and ballot arguments are treated by the Secretary of State and county auditors.

Rep. Steve Bergquist, D-Renton, the bill sponsor, said with cities, counties and the state producing voter pamphlets, it is about ensuring that information in them “is honest, transparent, and communicative.”

Under current law, the content of candidate statements is narrow, but not so narrow as to avoid disputes on what is and is not allowable.

In local voter pamphlets, the law spells out that candidates are supposed to focus on themselves but a wayward reference to an incumbent can find its way into text. As far as state pamphlets, there is not been that specific guidance. Basically, candidates aren’t supposed to say anything obscene.

Thus, candidate statements can vary in tone and content from county to county, as well as between counties and the state, as election officials enjoy wide latitude in interpreting how well candidates toe the line.

Famously, former Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel forced initiative promoter Tim Eyman to remove the abbreviation “BS”, which she found “vulgar and inappropriate” from a ballot argument. He replaced it with Bolshevik.

A flare-up in the November 2020 contest for superintendent of public instruction revealed the extent to which the laws will allow a little trash-talking in candidate statements, if properly worded.

State schools chief Chris Reykdal went to court in hopes of forcing challenger Maia Espinoza to remove a line from her statement that said “the incumbent” championed a policy that taught sex positions to fourth graders. Ultimately the state’s high court ruled the line could stay in, concluding it was inflammatory but not defamatory.

In the course of the legal fight, some county auditors removed the line from pamphlets they produced. Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell left it in but required Espinoza replace “the incumbent” with “the administration.”

As originally drafted, House Bill 1453 would have banned candidates from discussing one’s opponent at all or disparaging others.

When the bill came to the House floor, Republican lawmakers succeeded in removing those prohibitions, arguing they impeded candidates’ First Amendment rights.

The bill wound up passing 90-7 and is awaiting consideration in the Senate.

Bergquist didn’t object.

“I introduced this bill with broad language to try and cover a lot of potential issues in voter pamphlet language,” he said in an email. “The bill will help ensure that the language included in voter pamphlets is accurate and appropriate.”

While he said he did not draft those restrictions in response to what occurred in the 2020 election, “this bill could potentially help avoid similar situations in the future.”

Kylee Zabel,a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Kim Wyman, said it is not “definitively clear” if the bill as now written would prevent the recurrence of similar situations like last fall “though creating an avenue for candidates to mention their opponents in their statements still leaves that potential.”

Ultimately, she said, “by providing the same set of standards for candidate statements that will be used across the board, it should eliminate confusion from candidates/campaigns as to what content is permissible.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com | @dospueblos

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