Election in a vacuum

When reading Seattle's voters' pamphlet, never is heard a disparaging word.

That's because city elections regulators don't allow candidates to mention their opponents in their written statements or in the video voters' guide. City Council candidate Grant Cogswell and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington say this is censorship, and they want it stopped.

Cogswell, a major organizer of the 1997 monorail initiative, is challenging City Council member Richard McIver. He wants to tell voters that McIver has been a consistent monorail opponent and that the incumbent helped block a Sound Transit grant to fund monorail research. City voters had to go back to the ballot last year to pay for those studies.

He's got a major ally in the ACLU, which last month unsuccessfully attempted to convince the city's Ethics and Elections Commission to eliminate the ban on mentioning opponents. "The purpose of a voter pamphlet is to give everybody an opportunity to tell people why they're running for office," says the ACLU's Doug Honig. "They should be able to say that and say it plain and clear."

City election regulators say the ban is no different than requirements that candidates be photographed against a neutral background or refrain from wearing uniforms. "I think incumbency is McIver's uniform and his background," responds Cogswell.

This isn't the first time this rule has caused controversy; in 1997, mayoral candidate Charlie Chong was told to cut a video voters' guide reference to opponent Paul Schell being a developer who doesn't live in the city (as now, Schell owned a home on Whidbey Island and rented a Seattle condominium). The difference in this case is the added legal muscle: ACLU officials are seriously considering representing Cogswell in a lawsuit.

In retaining the ban, the Ethics and Elections Commission claimed a distinction between "information" (which means saying nice things about yourself) and "advertising" (which, I guess, means saying bad things about your opponent). However, this rhetorical argument may mean little in court; federal case law seems to favor Cogswell's position.

It's hard to argue that the ban doesn't benefit incumbents unfairly. It's standard political strategy for current officeholders to refrain from even mentioning their opponents by name. And let's not forget that all candidates challenging incumbents run on the same basic platform: "My opponent is not doing a good job."

Why shouldn't they be allowed to say so?


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