The Unseen Side of Endorsements

By Michelle Emmons and Ashley Pelton 

As first-time candidates running for office in a largely rural area, we are concerned about a  broken component in our political engine that promotes giving away the power of individual voices to special interests. The monetary and political influence that some endorsing entities hold combined with inappropriate campaign involvement has led to unfortunate consequences in Oregon politics, leading to special interests’ control over candidates, elections and politics at-large. 

To clarify, not all endorsing entities follow bad practices, but enough do that it warrants voters better understand the endorsement process. Endorsements are cues that help guide voters in making political decisions that reflect their values. In a world where we are politically burnt out and lack an easily navigable system to properly assess candidates, voters often forgo the cumbersome research process and instead rely on endorsements to guide their decisions. Some lose interest in the voting process altogether. This is one of the reasons that candidates rely so heavily on receiving and displaying endorsements on their websites, in mailers and in voter pamphlets: “Vote for me! I’m endorsed by A, B and C!” 

Endorsements become an issue when special interests occupy a formidable political influence over who is voted into and out of office, especially when our state has no contribution limits. That power should exist solely within the hands of Oregon voters. 

One subsect of endorsing entities form Political Action Committees (PACs), some of which maintain clever names that seemingly appear to represent the interests of the people rather than corporate money. However, if voters were to do their research, they might find that the endorsing PAC has a strong partisan bias or may not necessarily represent the insinuated agenda in its title. Additionally, some “non-partisan” endorsing entities choose who they will endorse without allowing both all candidates to participate in their formal endorsement process, even when the candidate specifically requests to take part in the process. 

If voters choose candidates based primarily on endorsements, then they’ve passively allowed those organizations to remove their own voice from their ballot, giving away their vote to special interests. This is why it is so imperative for each voter to vote purposefully, not passively. When voters allow endorsements to serve as the primary influence on their ballots, we strengthen the bond between politicians and the powerful lobbyists who try to buy their votes at the capital. 

Organizations with disproportionate political power are fully aware of their ability to “make” or “break” candidates. In one case, we’ve heard from a PAC representative who candidly explained they will attempt to take down candidates who accept their money then vote differently than they had agreed. While it is understandable that the organization would feel misled, a legislator shouldn’t feel beholden to organizations in fear of being “taken down” by them. Indeed, legislators should always maintain the ability to cast a vote for policies that improve the lives of their constituents, before furthering the agenda of a well-resourced organization.

Additionally, some candidates have refrained from canvassing with other colleagues because  politically powerful endorsing entities would not allow them to canvass with candidates from certain political races they had not endorsed. Organizations shouldn’t be dictating how candidates run their campaigns, but there are many candidates who are obligated to do as they are told because the money and support they are given come with explicit expectations. 

Some voters rely heavily on endorsements for candidate vetting, and for candidates who do not have clear policy stances to share, endorsements replace substantive plans and visions for the communities they aspire to serve with a list of organizations the candidate could be expected to answer to in the form of votes when in office. Those votes will advance the goals of powerful entities, instead of addressing the needs of Oregonians. 

Curious who might be influencing candidates this election cycle? Every campaign’s finance history is available here

Ashley Pelton is the Independent, Working Families and Democratic candidate for Senate District 6. She is a social worker involved in bipartisan policy development.

Michelle Emmons is the Democratic and Independent candidate for House District 12. She is a professional clean water advocate, educator and entrepreneur.