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Iowa town’s promotion of write-in candidates ‘unusual,’ not necessarily unethical or illegal

Ballot-vote-500
Ballot-vote-500

The decision by leadership in a small Iowa town to provide the public additional information on write-in municipal candidates has raised a few eyebrows, but state officials indicate that there is nothing inherently unethical or unlawful regarding the instance.

Tim Box, Linn County’s deputy commissioner of elections, said his office was alerted to information posted on the website for the City of Ely, which he described as being “odd” and “unusual.”

Staff at the city, posted announcement on the website for the Nov. 8 elections that included not only names and profiles of individuals who had filed papers to seek public office, but residents who had expressed interest in being write-in candidates for city office.

Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/ely_screen_shot_480.jpg

“We referred the issue to the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board,” Box said by phone Tuesday. “This was definitely a unique situation for me and I felt it fell more into their area of expertise and authority.”

Ely City Administrator Aaron Anderson told The Iowa Independent that he placed the information on the website Friday, after he was approached by people within the community who asked him to do so. While he’s been a city administrator, he added, the city has offered candidate profiles to the public for information purposes and he viewed this as an extension of what was already being done.

“The candidate profiles are written by each of the candidates. The City of Ely or I do not do anything to them, but post them as they are given to us. … [I saw this] as being along the lines of a freedom of speech or freedom of the press issue. If it was being allowed for one group of people, a similar opportunity should be provided to other people.”

The situation in Ely is somewhat unusual, however, because all but one of the write-in candidates are running predominantly as a bloc and being endorsed by a group called “Citizens for Responsible Government in Ely,” which has not registered with the state. When asked if the same courtesy would have been provided to any other citizen also seeking election as a write-in candidate, Anderson said it already had.

“I had someone phone me yesterday, and I did [put that person's profile onto the website],” he said.

A spokeswoman with the Iowa Secretary of State’s office said that because there is no formal process for declaring a write-in candidate, she agreed with the Linn County Auditor’s Office that the question was of campaign ethics and not election law.

Meghan Tooker, executive director and legal counsel for the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, checked Ely’s website and also had a conversation with Anderson.

“There are two things that I see, two separate issues,” Tooker told The Iowa Independent by phone Tuesday. “One is whether it is a good idea for the city to provide information about write-in candidates. That doesn’t fall under our jurisdiction. I think that is a judgment call that is best left to the city and, ultimately, its residents. The second issue is whether any of the information the city provided violates … the Iowa Code.”

Iowa law states that a public body cannot expend taxpayer dollars to expressly advocate for or against a candidate or a ballot issue. Basically, general profiles or biographies of candidates are permitted. Within those profiles, however, candidates are prohibited from asking for a citizen’s vote or campaign contributions.

Tooker said there were at least two profiles on Ely’s website — one from a write-in candidate and another from a traditional candidate — that violated the rule. In addition, a phrase used at the bottom of a document (PDF) that provided profiles of several write-in candidates was questionable. That statement reads, “A good election is when you have a choice and a write-in space is there to gives [sic] you that choice!”

“I think that’s getting awfully close,” Tooker said, “but I don’t think it completely crosses the line. But, you know, it is getting awfully close.”

Anderson said he isn’t sure how Ely will address the issue in the future or if the city would continue to provide information on write-in candidates.

A similar situation involving a tiny town in Lucas County, located in south-central Iowa, had three city officials pooling their private funds to create a flier showing four individuals who were willing to serve on the local council if elected through write-in votes.

“In that situation, we were called to see if it would violate ethics laws,” Tooker said. “But the situation was different from Ely in that no public funds were being used to create, print or distribute the fliers.”

In both situations, she said, it appears that local officials were attempting to provide as much information as possible to voters.

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