Paid for by the Democratic Party of Sangamon [UPDATED!]

UPDATE: I was wrong. The available evidence I have tells me that while the letter in question was sent under Joe Schmoe’s name, it was not in his official capacity as Sangamon’s secretary of state. It seemed “official looking,” but then so does Publishers Clearinghouse (to some people).

[Note: I wrote an earlier version of this post at Hitcoffee. What I say here is slightly revised and updated.]

My wife got a piece of mail yesterday addressed to “[her name] or current resident” and the return address said, “paid for by the Democratic Party of Sangamon.” The bottom of the envelope had a note that said “From the desk of [Joe Schmoe],” who is Sangamon’s secretary of state. Inside the envelope were a vote-by-mail application, a postage-paid envelope in which to send the application, and a form letter from the Sangamon secretary of state explaining the vote by mail process.

While I have mixed feelings about vote by mail, it’s an option open to people in Sangamon and I offer no complaint about it here. And because, as I understand, the state’s secretary of state is charged with voter registration and running the vote by mail service, I find it entirely appropriate that his office sends letters and applications to citizens.

But it’s unseemly, in my opinion, to have this thing paid for by the Democratic party. It’s also unseemly that my spouse was the only one to get the application. While she is registered to vote, I don’t know if she’s registered as a Democrat, but she probably is.

I am not. I’m also not particularly friendly to the local Democratic party. Several months ago, a precinct captain asked for my signature on a petition for someone to run for Democratic the ward committeeman. I politely explained that I was uncomfortable with the quasi-official “party committeeman” form of governance. Equally politely, he demurred. He didn’t pursue the matter or harangue me the way stereotypical activist-types are supposed to.

But it’s possible that encounter put me on the list of “not likely to vote for our person and therefore shouldn’t waste campaign resources on him.” When it comes to things like voter canvassing or who to hit up for donations, that’s a perfectly acceptable way to designate people. But if, as may be the case here, it plays a role in determining who receives vote by mail applications “paid for by the Democratic Party of Sangamon,” that’s disturbing.

Or not. There may be other, mostly innocent or innocuous, things going on. Our phone number is registered under my wife’s name. So if the information about who is to receive the application is gotten by the same pool of information as the phone book, then I can see why the default would be to send the application to her. I also understand that in Big City, the Democratic Party is the only viable political party. Its quasi-official role in governing the city–via the ward committees which while they’re not as strong as they used to be, still exercise some power–gives it certain responsibilities. I don’t particularly like this quasi-official role. But I realize how that situation came about, and living in the real world requires accepting that for now things are as they are.

Neither is it a wholly bad thing, if it so happens the party is helping the state meet operating expenses for public services like vote by mail applications. Sangamon’s budget is pretty strapped.

I should also admit that the envelope was addressed to my spouse’s name “or current resident.” Presumably, I or anyone residing at that address could comfortably open the envelope and get the benefit of access to the application. And let’s not forget the postscript to the enclosed letter:

P.S. No matter who you vote for, voting matters. It’s the backbone of our democracy. Fill out your Vote By Mail application and send it back TODAY! You can apply online or find your early voting site at [Sangamaon]Dems.com/Voting-in-[Sangamon]

But I still have a problem with the situation. I usually won’t open a piece of mail addressed to someone “or current resident” if that someone is not me. I opened this particular piece of mail only because my wife gave me permission. While I would have probably opened the letter if it had been addressed to me, someone else–especially someone not likely to vote the Democrats’ way–might see “paid for by the Democratic Party of Sangamon” on the envelope and throw it away unopened, believing it just a political flyer or request for a donation.

If a state service “from the desk of” the state’s secretary of state is being sent out “paid for by the Democratic Party of Sangamon,” that implies something like an official advertisement the party bought from the state. It suggests that by paying for this outreach, the party receives quasi-official status as the main game in town. This isn’t the most horrible thing ever. And I’ve heard stories about “not the most horrible but still disturbing things” the Republican party does outside of Big City.

But “two wrongs” and “tu quoque’s” and all that–none of this is entirely benign either.

Image: Vote! By robertstinett. Creative Commons 2.0 Generic License, Attribution requirement. Some changes made to the written description of the image, but not necessarily endorsed by the image owner.


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22 thoughts on “Paid for by the Democratic Party of Sangamon [UPDATED!]

  1. Interesting.

    Some questions this raises:
    1. Is your wife already registered to vote? (I assume yes if she’s a registered Democrat; and if so it seems unlikely they used party affiliation instead of some other list to build the mailing).
    2. Is Joe Schmoe a Democrat?
    3. Was the “from the desk of” letterhead personal, or did it use official letterhead/seals/whatever to make it look like a government mailer (this, in my mind, is much like the fact that presidents can fund-raise, but not from the oval office)?

    My first read is that they didn’t use the government-only mailing lists, but did use a prominent local party member to support GOTV efforts. That strikes me as admirable, not questionable. And I sure wish registering voters and reducing impediments to voting wasn’t a partisan issue.

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    • 1. Yes, she is registered to vote. As am I. But I’m not registered as a Democrat.

      2. Yes.

      3. “Was the “from the desk of” letterhead personal, or did it use official letterhead/seals/whatever to make it look like a government mailer (this, in my mind, is much like the fact that presidents can fund-raise, but not from the oval office)?”

      I’d say that honestly, the answer is no, in that it doesn’t look like the envelope or letter I got a few days ago with my drivers license in it. And I should also confess–something which I’ve noticed only now, that I’ve looked at it again–that while the letter is signed by the state secretary of state, nowhere does it actually say “secretary of state.”

      ….which all….kind of vitiates most of what I was trying to argue.

      [ETA: This was in the first draft of my comment, but I forgot to delete it. I leave it in for you to see, but I’m not sure where I was going with it]: The envelope itself has only the return address (“Paid for by the Democratic Party of Sangamon….street and city) and a note at the bottom saying “From the desk of Joe Schmoe.” To

      ETA, #2: While I’m vitiating my point, I’ll note a disclaimer I just now saw at the bottom of the letter: “Paid for by the Democratic Party of [Sangamon], http://www.[Sagamon][dems.com. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.”

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    • 1. Yes, she is registered to vote. As am I. But I’m not registered as a Democrat.

      2. Yes.

      3. “Was the “from the desk of” letterhead personal, or did it use official letterhead/seals/whatever to make it look like a government mailer (this, in my mind, is much like the fact that presidents can fund-raise, but not from the oval office)?”

      I’d say that honestly, the answer is no, in that it doesn’t look like the envelope or letter I got a few days ago with my drivers license in it. And I should also confess–something which I’ve noticed only now, that I’ve looked at it again–that while the letter is signed by the state secretary of state, nowhere does it actually say “secretary of state.”

      ….which all….kind of vitiates most of what I was trying to argue.
      The envelope itself has only the return address (“Paid for by the Democratic Party of Sangamon….street and city) and a note at the bottom saying “From the desk of Joe Schmoe.” To

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  2. Hmm. I’ll have to keep an eye out for this, since I, too, am a resident of Big City, Sangamon.

    In a state where Joe Schmoe’s office can’t even afford the postage to mail out license plate renewal reminders, having the Democratic Party underwrite such a mailing is no surprise. It also wouldn’t surprise me if there was some partisan picking and choosing when it comes time to address the mailings.

    Lastly, and I speak as a mostly Democratic voter here, I wish the Republican Party was a bit more active in local politics. It’s quite tiresome to have our municipal government be, essentially, one party rule. Our legislature is a puppet of our mayor (for reasons unknown to me, since he’d have trouble getting elected dogcatcher at this point), and the legislators are, for the most part, simply conduits for services the city already provides. Is the Republican Party not interested in governing at the municipal level?

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    • I suspect, and I admit that I don’t know because I’m in a state that doesn’t aggressively gerrymander and even pays lip service to the idea of fairness across districts – but I don’t think this is a function of the party as much as the system.
      There are a few R’s running seriously for local office in my district – mainly for positions where personal integrity trumps(*) party affiliation. I know for a fact that other districts within 30 miles are just the opposite, even with more sorting and less gerrymandering.
      Not a party thing – hell, from everything I’ve heard, D’s are less organized at a local level than R’s.

      (*) Heh, that never gets old, does it?

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  3. I suspect what you have there is not affiliated with the office, but run wholly out of the Democratic party offices.

    That is, a Democratic operation from top to bottom that the GOP could replicate entirely, lacking only the secretary of state’s endorsement (but I suspect they could get the form letter on the vote by mail process).

    In place, they’d use one of their own higher ranked politicians.

    In short, I’d bet money the party used no state resources whatsoever (that would be, in fact, quite illegal to do so in a partisan fashion) and merely created a mailer and had one of their own office holders endorse it.

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    • In short, I’d bet money the party used no state resources whatsoever (that would be, in fact, quite illegal to do so in a partisan fashion) and merely created a mailer and had one of their own office holders endorse it.

      Yes, it would be illegal. And I think it would be illegal, or “unseemly,” if it’s sent “from the secretary of state’s” office. But please see my responses to Nevermoor. He (and you) were right ad I was wrong.

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  4. My reading of what you’ve written is that while the mailing says, “from the desk of [Joe Schmoe]”, it does not say, “from the desk of [Joe Schmoe], secretary of state of Sangamon”, nor is it on official letterhead.

    Most states allow people other than employees of the state to distribute and collect voter registration. And that’s what they are doing. You are right that someone might see “paid for by the Democratic Party” and discard the voter registration. And it is also true that for the most part, the Republican Party doesn’t really push voter registration all that much. They have worked very hard to get their voters to the polls, but not so hard to get them to register beforehand.

    I don’t think you can have politics without having advocacy and without people trying to get an edge.

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  5. Under Illinois’ State Officials and Employees Ethics Act, this is defined as a “prohibited political activity”:

    Soliciting votes on behalf of a candidate for elective office or a political organization or for or against any referendum question or helping in an effort to get voters to the polls.

    State employees cannot engage in a prohibited activity during work hours or have their compensation/employment effected by whether they volunteer their off-hours. Constitutional officers are prohibited from requiring/coercing state employees from engaging in a prohibited activity. So, the question is probably whether or not employees worked on the mailer while on the clock.

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    • With the big “paid for by the Democratic party” sticker on the front? I would be really surprised if they did.

      It seems a basic voter registration/get-out-and-vote mailer. The only reason it’s raising his eyebrows is the guy that signed it is secretary of state. Not really unusual, he’d be the obvious face to put on it.

      Like I said, it was almost certainly a packet put together by the party, with no state time or funds involved. It’s pretty standard stuff, and it’d be really, really unusual for them to not obey the law on something this simple. (I mean it happens, you get idiots everywhere, but it’s not all that usual for this particular law to be broken.)

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    • That seems a bit odd to me – that the government is not permitted to encourage or help people vote.

      Elections Canada was recently prohibited (by the previous government) from doing any kind of promotion of voting. Obviously, they were doing so in a very politically neutral way, no promotion of one party’s platform or another. But they were arguably targeting demographics that tend to vote less – young people, aboriginal people, etc.

      A cynic might say that the problem with that is that young and aboriginal voters tend not to vote Conservative, so the Conservative government of the time wanted to keep things as they were – turnout high among old white men, and low among as many other demographics as possible.

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      • I’ve retracted pretty much all of my post, but if this had been done on the government’s dime or from a desk of the government, and sent only (or primarily) to Dem voters at the expense of non-Dem voters….then that would be a prohibited activity, and rightfully prohibited.

        But again, that isn’t what this was in the OP, and I was wrong.

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        • I agree that this particular mailing would have been inappropriate had the government been involved.

          It just seems odd that any encouragement at all to vote would be of limits. I suppose there’s a legitimate fear it would be partisan, just less blatantly so.

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          • Now that I reread the item quoted by P. D. Shaw–it seems I’m doing a lot of re-reading these days:)–I notice that get out the vote efforts are apparently prohibited. That seems strange to me, too. The only rationale I can think of is that it’s likely to be understood whom one’s (state) official wishes for you to vote for. But that’s a weak rationale. Not that Sangamon is known for having sensible laws or regulations to begin with.

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            • The law here was passed in response to the previous Secretary of State using the office for political and personal gain, including the infamous license-for-bribes scandal by which unqualified drivers got licenses. Six children were killed in an accident traced to an unqualified, licensed driver. This law was supposed to draw a firm line between what is the business of government and what is personal and political. (It also bars constitutional officers from promoting their name through state-run programs, but I don’t think it applies here if its a private mailer)

              Six children dead; two parent severely burned, seventy-six convictions by last count.

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  6. Still a better angle than ‘voter report card’ (which isn’t all that bad). The worst are anything that says there’s some sort of ‘violation’ or ‘delinquency’.

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  7. @everyone:

    I think I was wrong. Nevermoor’s comment above prompted me to relook at everything. This does not seem to be an official thing at all. I should have known better.

    At least I don’t mistake Onion articles for the real thing. (Oh, wait! I have!)

    (((walks away sheepishly, takes a sip of beer)))

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  8. Pingback: Paid for by the Democratic Party of Sangamon [UPDATED!] | Hit Coffee

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