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October 21, 2017

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Columnist Jon Ralston: Voters, courts allowing muck

Jon Ralston hosts the news discussion program Face to Face on Las Vegas ONE and publishes the Ralston Report. He can be reached at (702) 870-7997 or at [email protected]


August 21 - 22, 2004

Q: So why did you use a Michael McDonald flier to send out a campaign flier from the Janet Moncrief campaign?

A: It was a way of fooling the voters to think this was another Michael McDonald hit.

-- Moncrief consultant Tony Dane, explaining to a grand jury how a dirty trick was executed

Dane's sleazy yet successful efforts notwithstanding, this is really what campaigns are all about, isn't it?

So many Chuck Yeager-like campaign spinmeisters have pushed the envelope as far as they can, breaking new barriers of taste and propriety. And despite state efforts to reform the process with more disclosure and more openness, they have been thwarted by federal court decisions, including the recent Ninth Circuit Court's decree that anyone can send out anything anonymously, and the willingness of ingenuous voters to be spun, tricked and bamboozled.

Campaign 2004 is the nadir of this phenomenon, starting at the top with the presidential muckfest, and occurring here, too, with outside groups airing ads that mislead and distort and inside groups that do the dirty work so the candidates don't have to.

All of this is premised on the assumption that the voters are too busy or too lazy or too ignorant to pay attention and cast informed votes -- consider how many folks, starting this weekend, will vote early instead of waiting until Election Day when they will have more information. Without the electorate's complicity, the Tony Danes of the world would not exist.

Consider a couple of the myriad examples in Nevada right now:

The Committee for Fair Taxation -- really, I think they could have come up with a better moniker -- is eviscerating state Sen. Ann O'Connell as a profligate taxer and spender because she signed onto a $1.6 billion dollar tax bill last session. O'Connell, sources say, actually has two red buttons at her Senate desk because she never uses the green one she votes "no" so often.

But her foolish courtesy to her colleagues in signing onto a bill that had a payroll tax and a sales tax on services is now haunting her. Her defensive and inoculative ads depicting her as some great friend of education and portraying her opponent, newcomer Joe Heck, as a puppet of the gamers, who formed the committee, are equally truth-challenged.

In an effort to save state Sen. Ray Rawson from himself, another independent group -- The Committee for Truth in Politics -- hello, oxymoron -- has portrayed challenger and Assemblyman Bob Beers as a grandparent-hating, liberal-leaning wacko. Beers is about as conservative as O'Connell. But in response, he has not said much and hardly deviated from his simplistic "Rawson likes taxes and I don't" mantra, which just may carry him to victory.

And then there is the Axe the Tax petition presented by the serially unsuccessful George Harris, who is using the initiative process to vent personal grudges against the governor and his allies and only has credibility because he has ingenuous Review Journalists on speed-dial. Only Harris' consistent fecklessness will keep that disastrous tax petition from being on the ballot.

The question is how to fix this -- or whether it even can be fixed, or whether voters even care if it is fixed.

What this boils down to is how to reconcile free speech rights with clean elections. Common sense says voters should know who is behind the mail pieces they receive or TV ads they watch -- disclosure can never be harmful, can it? On the other hand, why shouldn't someone who fears retribution or is just craven be able to anonymously disseminate campaign material?

When those independent groups file their reports in a week, we will have proof of what we already know: That the gaming industry is trying to erase O'Connell and that Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio is trying to save Rawson. But under the theory behind that Ninth Circuit Court decision, why shouldn't all of that stuff be secret?

All of this shows how the judiciary is increasingly drawn into the political fray and settles these issues in sometimes thoughtful but often contradictory ways. The petition process already was a mess before a federal judge said the law that mandates signature thresholds must be met in 13 of 17 counties did not meet constitutional muster.

If that is permanently erased, Clark County essentially could control the initiative process and could impose anything from tax increases to rural water grabs. There are things that result from the practical applicability of these court decisions that never were dreamt of in the philosophy underpinning them.

And yet this still, despite the legal and philosophical morass, comes back to what Dane said so matter-of-factly inside that grand jury room. It just goes to prove an old axiom: You can't fool all of the voters all of the time. But if you fool enough of them, you just might get elected.