December 18, 2007 - Gift-for-voting offer assailed

Paper: The Sacramento Bee
Title: Gift-for-voting offer assailed
Date: December 18, 2007

By Shane Goldmacher

Stop by the Mike Gipson for Assembly headquarters after voting and you could win a $250 gift card.

That was the none-too-subtle message delivered in a political mailer that has stirred charges of vote buying and has the state's top elections official saying the practice should be illegal.

The controversial mailing was sent by Gipson's campaign in a heated Democratic battle between Gipson, a Carson City Council member, and Warren Furutani, a Los Angeles Community College board member. Furutani won the Dec. 11 special election for a Los Angeles-area Assembly seat.

Packaged to look like a Christmas greeting, the card read "from my family to yours" and promised "a chance for a $250 Christmas Shopping Trip at Target," courtesy of the Gipson campaign. All a voter had to do was cast a ballot and bring a voting receipt on election night to Gipson's headquarters, where they would hold a raffle to determine the 10 winners.

Gifts, monetary or otherwise, are banned in federal elections, but they're allowed in state contests – so long as the giveaway doesn't depend on voting for or against a particular candidate or issue.

California's chief elections officer, Secretary of State Debra Bowen, said "it appears that it is not illegal under California law, though it probably should be."

It's legal largely because the last line of the campaign piece notes "you are eligible to win ... no matter who you vote for."

Regardless, the campaign tactic didn't work.

Gipson lost to Furutani by 10 percentage points, 48 to 38 percent, in an election that drew a dismal 11.4 percent turnout.

Gipson defended the mailer, calling it "an opportunity to get people to go out and vote" in a low turnout election.

"It didn't say who to vote for. We accepted people who didn't vote for me or who didn't indicate how they voted," he said.

Furutani, who took a victory lap around Sacramento last week, said of the Gipson mailer: "Desperate people do desperate things. ... It definitely went over the edge in terms of desperation, trying to buy votes. That's what it was."

"I'm moving on," said Furutani, who is heavily favored to win a Feb. 5 runoff election against two minor-party candidates.

Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, a government watchdog group, said the mailer, even if technically legal, "crossed the line."

"In order to collect that potential prize, you have to bring your ballot receipt to the (Gipson) headquarters," Feng said. "If you didn't vote for that candidate, you certainly would feel very intimidated going to collect your prize if you had to march into the candidate's headquarters to do so."

Kenneth Orduna, chief of staff to Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, a Compton Democrat and chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, criticized the mailer as "an insult" to the black community, saying it targeted poor African American neighborhoods.

"With Christmas just two weeks away, many families are struggling to make this Christmas a joy for their children," reads the inside of the campaign mailer. "So my campaign has purchased 10 gift certificates for $250 Christmas Shopping Trips to Target."

Orduna, who said he took vacation time from work to walk precincts for Furutani, said Furutani supporters were "covering the entire district" and the mailer only showed up in predominantly African American portions of Carson.

"It is an insult," said Orduna, whose boss endorsed Furutani after initially backing Gipson. "If he was going to do it he should have done it to the entire district, not just the African American community."

Gipson, who is African American, called that charge "absurd," "incorrect" and "without basis."

"It went all over the district," he said.

It is not the first time campaign literature has offered incentives in exchange for voting.

Perhaps most famously, in 1999 the Democratic Party offered voters $5 coupons for a chicken dinner in hopes of driving up turnout so that the party's endorsed candidate, former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris could avoid a runoff. The party was unsuccessful, as Harris ultimately lost to Audie Bock, the first – and only – Green Party candidate ever elected to the Legislature.

In that campaign, Democratic consultant Richie Ross served as Harris' campaign manager. Ross was also a strategist for Gipson. He did not return a call for comment.

Two prior attempts to ban gifts-for-voting drives in California failed in the Legislature in the mid-1990s.

Bowen, the secretary of state, said she will "take a look" at trying to bring state elections policy in line with federal law.

The challenge, she said, is not discouraging nonpartisan voter registration drives and not punishing voters who unknowingly sign up for freebies.

"It doesn't happen very often," she said of pay-to-vote tactics. But "it doesn't mean we shouldn't clean up the elections code to prohibit it."

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