Campaigning vs. information
State law: Public funds can pay for 'issue advocacy'
As campaigns swing into last-minute high gear before the Nov. 5 election, those for and against various issues and levies on the ballot are doing everything they can to get their messages out.
That includes direct mail.
But what's the difference between campaign literature and an information-only piece?
Phil Richter, executive director and staff attorney at the Ohio Elections Commission, said it comes down to the difference between "express advocacy" and "issue advocacy."
"Express advocacy says to vote for or against something and espouses a particular position on a political issue," he said.
"Issue advocacy is giving information about the political issue or candidate, but doing so without encouraging anyone to take a particular voting action."
The Upper Arlington school district has a 4-mill levy on the ballot and the city of Reynoldsburg is seeking an increase to the city income tax rate. Both have mailed information to residents.
Karen Truett, district director of communications for Upper Arlington schools, said 12,954 letters were sent to residents about the levy. The letters, paid for with taxpayer money, were not campaign letters to urge voters to vote "yes" on the levy, she said.
According to Truett, the letters stated facts about the levy, how much it will cost voters and how much the district will have to cut if it fails.
Truett said the Ohio Revised Code allows district or public funds to be used for such mailings as long as the piece presents only information and facts and does not urge anyone to vote one way or another.
She said printing and preparation of the letters cost $2,113 and postage cost $1,243.43, for a total of $3,356.43.
In Reynoldsburg, the city sent residents a letter about the 1-percent income tax hike on the Nov. 5 ballot. City Auditor Richard Harris said the city paid $5,500 for the services of political consultant Zack Woodruff and $11,500 for the mailed piece, printing costs and updated information on the city's website.
"It is a campaign to get information to people," Harris said. "It is a fact-only piece and an information-only piece."
Reynoldsburg City Council President Doug Joseph, however, objected to hiring Woodruff to create the direct-mailing information piece because Woodruff also would be helping to run the campaign to promote the city income tax hike.
Upper Arlington resident Mark Calvary, who wrote a letter to ThisWeek about whether it was proper for that school district to spend public money in such a way, said in an interview he objected most to information about the school levy presented on the district website.
"It is a gray area and the lit mailing piece was more informational, but if you go to the UA school website, I think they crossed the line by refuting everything that the Educate UA website was saying," he said.
Educate UA is a residents' group opposed to the levy.
"If the schools are using public money to maintain the website or put information on the website, then it is not a good use of public money," Calvary said.
According to the state auditor's website, the Ohio Revised Code states no government body may use public funds to publish or distribute information that supports the passage of a levy or promotes any candidate or issue before an election.
Richter said the Ohio Elections Commission spends "a good portion of time" talking to people with concerns about school districts and cities using their time and public funds to endorse certain issues.
"In order for something to be considered within the jurisdiction of this commission, the information needs to be considered express advocacy, as in 'vote for the levy or don't vote for the levy,' " he said.
"Nothing prohibits them from putting out helpful information to allow voters to assess information on their own," he said. "Some school districts and cities come closer to the line than others, though."