There were two surprises in the state’s general election guide this year: a missing profile for Independent candidate for governor Bill Walker, and an Alaska Republican Party ad attacking Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.
The Division of Elections quickly copped to the Walker omission and released a supplemental guide including the candidate, who won the election by a small margin. But Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, wants to make sure an attack ad never again appears in the pages of a state publication.
Gara announced in a statement Tuesday that he will pre-file legislation that would eliminate language in state statute that allows political parties to submit material for the state’s election pamphlet. Currently, parties can pay $600 per page to include whatever they want up to two pages.
At the back of this year’s general election pamphlet, four full-page ads were paid for by three political parties. The Alaska Republican Party paid for two of the pages, one of which shows an ad that asks voters if they “know Mark Begich votes with President Obama 95 percent of the time” and gives “five examples of Mark Begich siding with President Obama over Alaskans.”
Begich and his Republican opponent Dan Sullivan, who ended up winning the race by just over 6,000 votes, both slung mud in their campaigns, leaving many voters with a bad taste in their mouths. But the non-partisan voter guide is one place where people should be able to get away from the worst of election season, Gara said.
“There’s already too much negative advertising,” he said. “It should rub people the wrong way that a state-funded voter guide would have attack ads.”
This year’s incident of a political party’s ad criticizing a candidate by name was a first for the state’s election pamphlet. The online archives of the Division of Elections, which puts out the publication, go back to 2002. In those years, no party has called out a specific candidate in their ads, focusing solely on promoting their own platforms.
Political parties often run variations on the same ad in the pamphlet year after year, but Division of Elections director Gail Fenumiai said the division has never been able to regulate what parties put in their ads. State statute is silent on it.
“There are no guidelines whatsoever in state law that talks about what can or can’t be published … as part of that information (outside of the two-page limit),” she said. “The division has nothing to do with what is submitted.”
Gara said he didn’t think a political party had ever realized it could say whatever it wanted in its election pamphlet ads.
“I don’t think anyone had ever found the loophole in the law before,” he said. “I don’t think anybody knew that you were allowed to put in a negative or an attack ad in the state voter guide. I didn’t know that myself.”
The issue came to Gara’s attention when constituents complained about the anti-Begich ad, he said. Fenumiai said the division also received complaints. The Empire got a few concerned emails at the time, as well.
“People are expecting candidates to have statements, but they don’t expect to see attack ads (in the pamphlet),” Gara said. “If the state is funding it, there’s no place, in my mind, for attack ads in a publication that the public is paying for.”
The pamphlet cost about $199,000 to produce this year, Fenumiai said. The $600-per-page fee charged to political parties goes back into the state’s general fund.
Gara said he would have proposed the legislation even if the candidate attacked had not been a member of his own party. He said he intends to reach across the aisle for bipartisan sponsorship of the legislation.
“I don’t care if (it’s) the Republicans or the Democrats or the Libertarian party or the Green party,” he said. “The state voter guide is no place for that kind of politics. It’s not a place for attack ads from any party. … It turns people off of voting, it alienates people, and it’s, in my view, unsavory.”
Different states have different rules for their voter guides, Fenumiai said. For example, Washington state doesn’t allow candidates to mention any other candidate but themselves in their submitted statements. Gara said he’s open to changing the language of his legislation to allow non-attack ads, as long as there’s a fair way to determine what is and what isn’t negative.
Femumiai said the division could use more guidelines to work from.
“At this point, the more details about what is and isn’t allowed probably would be helpful to the division,” Fenumiai said. “Our hands are tied by state statute. Because of that, we have to take everything as it’s submitted to us.”