Connolly, Wasserman Schultz Call for Larger Reforms to Curb Mail System Abuses, Expose ‘Ghost Candidates’ in Fla. Elections

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Washington, February 16, 2022 | comments
Enforcing existing disclosures requirements, and adopting common-sense transparency rules could have discouraged this abuse, or forced them into the light before voters decided these races. We can help our democracy if we arm the public and press with more knowledge about who buys mail ads. Chairman Connolly and I are eager to work with Postal Service leaders to enhance or adopt protections to prevent this type of mail system abuse in our elections.
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Washington, D.C. (February 16, 2022) – Today, House Committee on Oversight and Reform (COR) Member, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23), and COR Subcommittee on Government Operations Chairman Gerald E. Connolly, co-authored a letter to U.S. Postmaster Louis DeJoy to request that the U.S. Postal Service bolster its identification and disclosure rules, and consider other measures to combat the type of mail system abuse recently witnessed in several Florida elections.

The letter was prompted by the emergence of so-called ‘ghost candidates’ in recent Florida races, where the mail system was critical in promoting illegal or deceptively-advertised candidates, which ultimately influenced and possibly overturned the outcomes of several competitive races.

“Laws were broken to promote several ‘ghost candidates’ in Florida races, and these bad actors relied heavily on leveraging the mail system to manipulate voters,” said Wasserman Schultz. “Enforcing existing disclosures requirements, and adopting common-sense transparency rules could have discouraged this abuse, or forced them into the light before voters decided these races. We can help our democracy if we arm the public and press with more knowledge about who buys mail ads. Chairman Connolly and I are eager to work with Postal Service leaders to enhance or adopt protections to prevent this type of mail system abuse in our elections.”

Read the content of the letter below:

Mr. Louis DeJoy

Postmaster General

U.S. Postal Service

475 L’Enfant Plaza SW

Washington, DC 20260

 

Dear Postmaster General DeJoy,

Deceptive political mailers are, unfortunately, a common part of our country’s electoral process.  In a small number of contests, however, malicious political actors so egregiously abuse the U.S. Postal Service through the use of political mailers that it distorts electoral outcomes.

Just such a cloud of corruption hangs over Florida’s 2020 election cycle, where exploitation of the Postal Service was central to a miscarriage of democracy.  Thankfully, this type of abuse easily can be diminished or thwarted by prioritizing nominal existing administrative requirements and revising and improving certain disclosure and transparency safeguards.

We write to you today requesting action, assistance, and collaboration to prevent the exploitation of our mail system and to protect our democracy.  A few common-sense measures will help repair confidence in our election process, and we look forward to working with you to refine and implement them.  

In one example that punctuates the need for action, news reports and court filings show that political operatives in at least three Florida Senate races used funds from dark money groups to promote “straw” candidates designed to confuse voters and manipulate electoral outcomes.  These groups sometimes employed illegal means to execute their nefarious subversion of democracy and in other cases unethically exploited the Postal Service’s wide reach to enhance the name identification of so-called “ghost” candidates.  These shadow “ghost” campaigns exist almost exclusively in voters’ mailboxes – as thousands of mailers that contain false information about candidates selected specifically because their names or other identifiers prompt confusion or conflation with legitimate candidates.

Such intentional malice corrupted the outcome of several democratic elections.  In Florida Senate District 37, the most egregious case, mailers supporting a “ghost” candidate blanketed the district.  Those funding the misleading mailers were permitted to remain anonymous.   The mailers helped the “ghost” candidate garner more than 6,000 votes in a race decided by 32 total votes.  Other bad actors deployed these same deceptive mail practices to influence two other hotly-contested 2020 Florida Senate races.  According to court records, across these three Florida Senate races, anonymous bad actors sent more than 500,000 deceptive political mail advertisements to unsuspecting voters.

To combat these underhanded practices, we request that the Postal Service consider additional identification requirements for the purchase of all Political Mail, including maintaining a publicly-available database that lists the individuals who design and market the mailpiece and identifies individuals who directly benefit from the mailing.

The Postal Service must also commit to prioritizing implementation of the current rule requiring the disclosure of the designers, marketers, and beneficiaries of political mailers, as outlined in the current PS-3602 form.  Despite potential civil or criminal penalties for failure to report certain information required by the form, a lot of information appears uncollected.  Prioritizing information collection and proper administration of PS-3602 would deter bad actors from sending dishonest and illegal mailers and aid investigations of potential violations of law that threaten our democracy.  There must be accountability when fraudulent, intentionally deceptive mail is sent.  Proper administration of current rules is a good place to start.

Furthermore, the public cannot currently access the PS-3602 forms.  We seek to work with the Postal Service explore the creation of a public-facing database of PS-3602 forms to allow for greater transparency into the use of mailers and their processing by the Postal Service.  By collecting and publicly disclosing which individuals and organizations are sending and benefiting from political mail, the Postal Service can invite citizens to assist in combatting attempts to distort our democracy – further deterring malicious political actors from abusing our nation’s trusted mail system.

 

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