Last week, the staff of The Herald-Independent and McFarland Thistle discovered a candidate for local office drafted their own endorsement letter and had a member of the community make adjustments to the draft before signing off on the letter as if they had written it themselves, even without seeing the final version.
While we had suspected this had been a practice among candidates for office, it was the first time someone had admitted it was common.
Each election cycle, newspapers receive numerous endorsement letters for candidates. The staff and readers of the newspaper take those letters at face value – that the individual who signed the letter wrote it themselves, that these are his or her original thoughts unless they have quotation marks and attributions to the statements, and there was minimal influence from the endorsed candidate.
The Wisconsin Ethics Commission said the practice of candidates for local office drafting endorsement letters and having others agree to the content and sign the letters was not expressly prohibited under state statutes, nor had the commission written an ethical opinion of this action.
However, this newspaper believes the action brings into question the validity and credibility of endorsement letters.
Can and should readers accept that letters to the editor are created by the person who signed the endorsement? Do all these letters need to be read with the understanding that the person who signed the letter may not have written it?
The practice makes the newspaper staff scrutinize the letters to determine if the content of the letters to the editor are the opinions written by the signee or simply the candidate putting his or her talking points through a filter. Does the staff limit the number of letters it chooses to publish with the knowledge that separate endorsement letters could have come from the same draft written by the candidate for elected office?
This also brings into question the integrity of candidate.
It is one thing for someone to ask for an endorsement; it is another for them to write a draft of a letter to the editor and ask someone else to sign it as if the signee had written the letter.
It’s a seemingly dishonest, yet accepted, practice for a person running for elected office; a person who will be responsible for keeping government decisions and actions transparent to the public.
The staff of The Herald-Independent and McFarland Thistle believe readers and voters deserve better than to be given regurgitated talking points from candidates filtered through a drafted endorsement letter signed by community leaders and other residents.
The electoral process and local elections deserves more respect than this.