Does Utah Need Some Sort of Fair Elections Commission?

While the 2014 election wasn’t particularly nasty in Utah, it had its share of negative campaigning. In some local and legislative races, candidates and parties on both sides sent out last-minute flyers that distorted records and made questionable accusations.

One target was Rep. Johnny Anderson in House District 34. His opponent sent out three mailers distorting his record and making accusations. Against the advice of some of his advisors, Anderson took the high ground and chose not to reply with negative attacks of his own. And the race ended up being a nail biter.

How much of the race’s closeness can be attributed to the negative campaigning can’t easily be measured, but Anderson is convinced the negative attacks had a big impact and nearly cost him the election. He did send out one post card simply saying it was unfortunate his opponent had resorted to personal attacks and he invited anyone with questions about the accusations to call him.

The truth is, any incumbent politician is susceptible to negative attacks. Even the most innocuous vote can be taken out of context and turned into something nefarious. Usually, a candidate attacked feels he or she has no recourse but to respond in kind, hitting back as hard as possible.

Anderson, a moderate with an easy-going personality, is one of the good guys at the Legislature. He doesn’t want to resort to that kind of campaigning himself. He was truly disappointed and hurt at the tone and inaccuracies in some of the attacks on him.

So he wondered if some sort of bipartisan Fair Elections Commission could be established to investigate negative attacks and report the truth. Then, candidates themselves wouldn’t need to respond in negative ways when attacked. The existence of such a commission might also make candidates think twice about going negative.

I certainly would not be opposed to such a commission. This approach has been tried in other states. Perhaps some organization like the Debate Commission, or a group of retired judges, could take on the task of playing referee in elections.

But I question whether such an effort would be viable over the long run. Pitfalls abound. Who gets to appoint the commission? What is the political balance? How are disputes resolved? Would news media report commission findings, especially in minor races? Would people pay attention? What happens when the commission itself is criticized for being biased? Would investigating an accusation just generate more negative publicity? Obviously, the commission would have no real authority, other than a bully pulpit.

Politics is a tough business, and negative attacks have been around since the nation’s founding. Free speech obviously applies to political candidates and even mean-spirited attacks are protected. The news media certainly have a role in ferreting out the truth, but they usually don’t pay a lot of attention to minor races. And even a positive news story can’t counteract an onslaught of negative ads.

It would be interesting to see if a commission playing political referee would work, but I have my doubts. I’m afraid negative campaigning will continue as long as it works, and candidates will simply have to be prepared.