Our View: Election materials should guide, not misguide, voters
As voters in south Nevada County prepare to cast their ballot to determine the fate of Higgins Fire Protection District’s special tax, they will likely do so with a piece of mail containing inaccurate information in the pile of paperwork.
Of course, that’s nothing new when it comes to an election, as voters regularly receive mailers funded by special interest groups that misrepresent facts to win a vote for one side or another.
But this time, it happened on the taxpayer’s dime. And the misleading information was printed on the Voter Instructions and Information Pamphlet, the actual document issued by the Nevada County Elections Office with the vote-by-mail ballot geared to inform voters of what a yea or nay vote would mean.
Voters will read in the pamphlet that Higgins Fire’s “majority of calls (75 percent) are for ambulance service, but the Higgins Staff does not provide any medical function since ambulance service is provided by Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital. Fire Department response is only to provide support services — if they are required.”
One must wonder the basis of such a claim, as clearly the author of the argument didn’t bother to check with Higgins Fire District itself.
“In fact 50 percent of calls are for medical reasons,” Higgins Fire District Board President Bruce Jones wrote in an op-ed responding to the false claim, while alleging more information shared by opponents of the measure was also published in the pamphlet. “… (Our) firefighters are often the first in, it’s why we are called ‘first responders.’ It is our EMT firefighters who provide the first medical aid, our firefighters are the (ones) who start CPR, and our firefighters are the ones continuing CPR in the ambulance.”
To be clear, the fact inaccurate information was printed in the pamphlet is not due to any error by the Nevada County Elections Office. As Clerk-Recorder Gregory J. Diaz noted last week, election law prohibits his office from altering any argument or rebuttal, for or against any measure, that is received.
In fact, California Secretary of State officials confirmed that they also are prohibited from vetting submitted arguments and correcting false information. Instead, at the state level, pro and con arguments are made available to the public several months ahead of the election for review. For the June 7, 2016 primary, such arguments will be posted on the Secretary of State’s website, with copies also available at the office, from Feb. 23-March 14. If anyone objects to information provided, they must then take it court. According to Election Code 13314, “An elector may seek a writ of mandate alleging that an error or omission has occurred, or is about to occur, in the placing of a name on, or in the printing of, a ballot, sample ballot, voter pamphlet, or other official matter, or that any neglect of duty has occurred or is about to occur.”
At the county level, the Elections Office made arguments available for review in the office over a 10-day period, upon the Notice of Election being published. Diaz said he received one argument in opposition of the measure penned by Wade Freedle, a member of the Citizens for Fair Fire Taxes, and one argument in favor, authored by Higgins Fire board members. One rebuttal against the measure was also submitted, by Freedle and Eddie Garcia, another member of the opposing group. As YubaNet first reported, in addition to the published pamphlet arguments against, Citizens for Fair Fire Taxes also mailed postcards inaccurately claiming Higgins Fire does not provide emergency medical services because its fire personnel are not trained as emergency medical technicians.
Freedle, who is listed among the members of the Nevada County Republican Party Central Committee, told The Union that his group may have been wrong in claiming that Higgins Fire personnel do not have emergency medical training, but that the other arguments he and his group have disseminated to voters are factual.
“I’m just a poor old country boy and I know if this passes, it’s going to be shown as a line item on my property tax statement,” Freedle said. “I think his response is generally anticipated because they have spun it from their direction and that’s what you expect in an election like this … Everything that could be classified as a fact, we are certainly ready to support 100 percent, and we’re ready to argue our verbal shadings of opinion.”
Of course, opinions are regularly argued here on these pages, especially in the thick of an election season. But voters should be able to believe that the information published at taxpayer expense, mailed to them inside the same envelope as their actual ballot, is factually correct. Absent of ability to vet the information they receive in submitted arguments, the public must rely on those offering arguments for and against to do so in a honest manner.
Anything less than that results in a breech of the public’s trust, and a voter’s guide that will actually misguide the voter.
The weekly Our View column represents the consensus opinion of The Union Editorial Board, a group of editors and writers from The Union, as well as informed community members. Contact the board at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.
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