Oregon Moves to Cut Back on Self-Promotion by Election Officials

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Oregon lawmakers are considering legislation that would restrict election officials’ ability to promote themselves on voting materials in years they are on the ballot after complaints that some county officials’ names are a little too prominent on materials sent to voters. OregonLive has more:

Oregon lawmakers advanced a measure Monday that’s meant to keep county clerks from splashing their names on election materials.

On a nearly party line vote, Senate Bill 670 passed the House 36-23 and now heads back to the Senate for approval of an amendment.

The bill would prevent elections officials — primarily county clerks — from putting their name on voters’ pamphlet, ballot return envelopes or any other printed materials included with the ballot during elections in which they are a candidate.

“Name recognition is an advantage for anyone running for office, especially in elections where there’s maybe not as much information about the candidate or the position they’re running for,” said Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene.

Elections officials who are on the ballot could still include their name in the voters’ pamphlet in the section where all candidates have the opportunity to purchase space.

The bill is apparently a reaction to a controversy in one particular county, where the county clerk was criticized for using her name on materials:

The bill would not impact home rule counties that appoint, rather than elect, their county clerk. Those include Multnomah, Washington and five other Oregon counties.

It would, however, affect Clackamas County, where County Clerk Sherry Hall has raised eyebrows for prominently using her name on election materials. When Hall was criticized in news coverage last year for doing so, she all but invited passage of this bill, telling The Oregonian/OregonLive, “I’ve followed the law at every step. But if someone wants to get the law changed, (lawmakers are) in session in Salem next year.”

One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Portland, said that Clackamas County commissioners requested the bill. Taylor’s district includes portions of the county.

Not everyone agrees the change is necessary, with opponents noting that name recognition is not always the deciding factor in an election:

Commissioners in Marion County also lent their support to the bill. The three Republicans on the commission jointly penned a letter to lawmakers saying they were “concerned with the possibility of self-promotion and personal gain” that elections officials could receive from having their name on ballot materials.

The letter came after Marion County Clerk Bill Burgess, a Democrat, ran for a seat on the Commission and lost, an outcome that opponents of the bill pointed to as evidence that the name recognition factor offers minimal advantage.

“(Burgess) has been on the election materials for 10 to 12 years, and it didn’t help him out,” said Rep. Denyc Boles, R-Salem.

Others note the value of supporting clerks’ ability to notify voters who to contact about election matters:

Opponents of the bill said having the name of the county clerk displayed on elections materials offers a level of accountability to voters.

“I want my county clerk’s name so I know who to call if I have an issue,” said Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio.

But Fahey said most people don’t end up speaking directly to the county clerk if they experience any problems with voting issues. “When I have had questions about my ballot or the election, I just called the county clerk’s office,” she said. “And then I’m routed to the appropriate person to answer my question.”

This is a fascinating debate; there is obviously a delicate balance between successful outreach to voters and impermissible self-promotion. And yet, given the news, this move isn’t all that surprising; years ago, I worked with an attorney who was fond of noting that “the law abhors a lack of subtlety” – and I suspect that’s what’s at issue here. If, as seems likely, this bill is enacted, Oregon county clerks will have to find another way to ensure that voters know who to contact without crossing the line into self-promotion, shameless or otherwise. Stay tuned …

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