CONCORD, NH – In Thornton, it was signs and direct-mail flyers that directed voters to the website stopthetax.info, where they were urged to vote against certain school district warrant items.
In Hollis, flyers mailed to homes told voters to vote “no” on two zoning articles at the March 18 town meeting.
In Epping, “Epping Residents for Government Integrity” sent a flyer to homes entitled “The Epping Taxing Times,” that endorsed candidates and opposed some of the warrant articles on the March 14 ballot.
The complaints to the New Hampshire Department of Justice Election Law Unit in recent weeks are from all over the state, from Milford to Dalton to New Durham to Newfields.
The complaint topics include signs, direct-mail flyers, social media posts and websites that endorse candidates, oppose warrant articles, rail about taxes, support students, throw shade at politicians. Some have dense paragraphs full of funky fonts, stock photos, exclamation marks and double underlining. Others are simple: “Vote yes!” or “Vote no!”
One thing they all have in common – they break the law.
State law – RSA 664:14, specifically – requires that political advertising must have disclosure information. In other words, it must be signed with the name and address of a person responsible for the advertising. If it doesn’t have that information, it doesn’t comply with election law and can be removed by municipal maintenance personnel and law enforcement.
Pulling a sign from the shoulder of the road is one thing. Direct mail flyers, social media posts and websites, particularly days before the election, are a whole different thing.
“The purpose of RSA 664:14 is to let voters know which individuals or groups are distributing political advertising so that voters can make informed decisions as to the weight they should give to the information in the political advertising,” Anne Edwards, N.H. Depart of Justice general counsel told Manchester InkLink Tuesday. Political advertising includes mailers, print ads in newspapers or other publications, website and signs.
Take, for instance, the Hollis mailing that opposed the zoning warrant articles. The only thing the DOJ’s Election Law Unit investigators had to go on was a Tampa, Florida, U.S. Postal Service stamp. It turned out the mailer was from a group called Hollis Residents Against Witches Spring Development Recreation Complex. That’s information someone would want to know as part of their decision-making process as they read the flyer.
The only identifying information on amhersttoday.net, target of another complaint, was “provided by concerned Amherst citizens who wish to remain anonymous.”
It’s also not enough to call yourself Community Help LLC, Concerned Citizens of New Durham, or Citizens Responsible for Dalton Development. An LLC must be registered with the state. All organizations providing political advertising must have a contact name of an individual with an address.
Edwards said some who violate the law aren’t aware it exists. Others are, but think it only applies to state elections, not town contests.
Others are well aware of the law, “But are hoping to be able to provide information without identification,” Edwards said.
The issue bridges the void between old-timey election advertising and the internet age.
“The larger issue in New Hampshire is mailers, as they can be sent within days of an election and they are harder to track,” she said. Direct-mail flyers may be old school, but they’re still the go-to of local campaigns that have a little bit of money to spend and once they’re on their way, they can’t be stopped.
But 21st-century campaigning is challenging for enforcers, too, particularly social media.
“People often tell us ‘the internet is unregulated.’ That is not true if it contains political advertising,” Edwards said.
The Election Law Unit investigates complaints when they get them from individuals, or when they become aware of violations through their own work.
Usually, compliance is quick.
When a Hollis resident saw a news release about the anonymous anti-zoning change flyers with the Tampa, Florida, postmark, he contacted the ELU. He identified the group, and said they have more flyers and two banners coming up before the election. He agreed to use an email address that includes the group’s full name on the flyers and banners in order to comply with the law.
Some of the investigations are more complicated. At least one, in Thornton, enlisted the help of the police chief. In that case, 20 town residents were found responsible for the stopthetax.info website and flyers, with two people spearheading the efforts.
The spate of ELU news releases about disclosure violation complaints over the past week show that most offenders immediately put the required information on the website or remove the non-complying media.
Edwards said punishment isn’t the focus in most cases. “Our focus is on educating people to correct the error and provide the required information,” she said.
But some cases require more of an enforcement effort.
A Haverhill direct-mail flyer had a U.S. Postal permit from a Manchester printing company. The company wouldn’t identify who paid for the flyers without a subpoena from investigators, so as of Monday, one was in the works, according to the state DOJ website.
In another case, a newspaper “had repeated violations of not identifying political advertising,” Edwards said. That’s the only case at the moment in which a criminal prosecution is underway.
The ELU doesn’t catch all the violators, just the ones it finds or those that are reported.
So, what can a voter do in the meantime? Attorney General Formella recommends that voters do their own research on candidates and warrant articles before they vote in their town election.