During the political season, while you’re listening to what candidates want to tell you, there’s another form of communication that most of us don’t see. It happens every election season. Maybe it should be more public.
Organizations of every political stripe send questionnaires to candidates for office, asking for their positions on issues of special interest to those organizations.
Some questionnaires are designed to educate the candidates about the organization’s issues. That’s a legitimate reason for a questionnaire. Organizations may use the candidates’ responses to make decisions about campaign contributions, endorsements and other forms of support.
Some questionnaires go further in attempting to pin candidates down to specific positions. The candidate is asked to make a commitment, in writing, to a position that the voters at large never learn about, because the organization has promised it won’t make the answers public. This should concern us.
Candidates are free to choose which questionnaires they will answer. They can (and do) ignore the questionnaires from organizations they disagree with.
Over the years I have had a chance to write a few questions and help candidates answer a few questions. Writing the questions is more fun.
A friend who ran for the Legislature in 2012 was kind enough to send me copies of some of the questionnaires she received.
A number of questionnaires came from public employee and retiree groups, including public employee unions. They asked about in pay, pensions, collective bargaining and related issues. A few came from health-care-related nonprofits and from business groups. They ask about issues that legislators can be expected to know something about.
Questionnaires came from pro-choice and pro-life groups including Planned Parenthood, New Mexico Right to Life PAC and a Catholic group. The questions from both sides targeted delicate issues of life, death, reproductive choice and choice in dying.
The questionnaire from the National Rifle Association was delivered along with an e-mail message from an incumbent legislator suggesting that my candidate friend should join the NRA before sending in her answers. Like other questionnaires dealing with life-and-death issues, this one asked extremely detailed questions about the candidates’ degree of commitment to its side.
These questionnaires demonstrate that every subject imaginable is potentially the target of legislation. I recently received a friendly flier from a legislative candidate in my district. The flier says this candidate is concerned about education, the economy and the environment – the usual subjects most New Mexicans are interested in. But if he wins, he’ll be expected to vote on everything from the authenticity of Indian jewelry to importation of exotic snakes, and who knows what else. There’s an interest group for every subject.
One concern is that so many questionnaires offer or imply a promise of funding if the candidate commits to their cause.
The questionnaire practice is completely unregulated, as it should be; it’s free speech. But the questionnaires that promise endorsements or financial support based on the candidate’s answers are a little different.
I talked about this with Viki Harrison, director of New Mexico Common Cause. She understood the problem.
“If the commitment to an issue comes with a promise of money,” she said, “that is pretty close to the definition of quid pro quo.” (“Quid pro quo” literally means “this for that.” Promising a vote in return for money is illegal, even in New Mexico.)
Harrison said Common Cause will soon be issuing its own legislative questionnaire on issues of government ethics and will publish the answers on its web site.
Even if the organizations don’t disclose the candidates’ answers, nothing stops the candidates from doing it. So I have a one-question questionnaire for all candidates of both parties: will you publicly disclose all the questionnaires you have answered and the answers you have given?
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