Editorial: Don’t get ‘Berned’ by sleazy slate mailers

Uber's headquarters in San Francisco.
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

Amid the campaign-season avalanche of political mailings, there have been a few doozies lately. Take, for example, the “Feel the Bern, Progressive Voter Guide,” which purports to give a lefty lift to a host of candidates and ballot measures.

The mailer includes an endorsement of Proposition 22, the Uber- and Lyft-backed ballot initiative to exempt drivers for app-based services from a new state law that classifies gig workers as employees entitled to state labor protections.

The mailer raised eyebrows for a number of reasons. Proposition 22 is not a favorite of progressives. Nor does it have the support of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. In fact, Sanders tweeted Monday that the “Feel the Bern” mailer is a lie. He continued, in true Sanders fashion, “CALIFORNIA: If you oppose corporate greed, vote no on Prop. 22.”


So how did “Yes on Prop. 22” end up on a “progressive” voter guide? The campaign simply bought its way there, with a $20,000 payment to a Long Beach-based political consulting firm that specializes in slate mailers (the kind that promotes a roster of candidates and ballot measures).

Political advertising often traffics in borderline truths, gross exaggerations and statements taken out of context. But slate mailers may be the worst of the breed. Candidates and ballot measure committees pay for endorsements on slate mailers from wholesome-sounding groups like the “Coalition for Senior Citizen Security” or “Millennials for Effective Government.” The groups are, by and large, fake. The mailers are paid campaign advertisements with little connection to reality.

And it’s all perfectly legal — as long as each mailer discloses who produced the ad and which candidates or campaigns paid for the endorsement. Slate mailer organizations are also required to file campaign finance statements with the state that detail who bought what endorsement on each mailer.

But just because slate mailers are legal doesn’t make them good for an informed citizenry. Sure, many voters see through the sham. Still, campaigns shell out thousands and thousands of dollars each election season hoping to sway at least some people with these misleading mailers.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) tweeted this week that she plans to introduce a bill next year to require more disclosure on slate mailers, including who is paying for the endorsements and how many members belong to the groups behind the mailers. In political campaigns, more disclosure and more transparency are always better for voters.

In the meantime, voters should read slate mailers with a highly skeptical eye. Or better yet, just toss them immediately into the recycling bin.