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Official looking ‘Oregon voter guide’ may mislead voters

Public employee unions, Democrats and other political allies are targeting voters looking for unbiased election information with a website they call "The Oregon Voter Guide."

Oregon voters seeking information about the November election are likely to see a website called “The 2022 Oregon Vote Guide” at the top of their online search results — ahead of the state’s official Voters’ Pamphlet.

The website — thanks to paid advertising — is the top result when people search specifically for the Oregon Voters’ Pamphlet in Google.

And many voters might not realize that the online guide isn’t an official state voters’ guide. The people who created “The Oregon Voter Guide” use neutral-sounding language, for example listing where the three leading candidates for governor graduated from college. Its homepage features a picture of an Oregon ballot envelope, with its “official election mail” marking.

But “The Oregon Voter Guide” is not nonpartisan or neutral: It’s funded and designed by a supergroup of Democratic allies, progressive groups and Democratic political action committees, from the House and Senate Democratic caucus PACs to the Service Employees International United union and statewide and national teachers unions, state records show.

For example, in the Oregon governor’s race, the website lists multiple laws that Democrat Tina Kotek helped to pass but only lists bills that Republican Christine Drazan and unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson blocked during their time in the state Legislature.

In Southern Oregon’s Senate District 10, the guide describes Republican candidate Randy Sparacino, currently the mayor of Medford and a former police officer and chief, as a “politician.” Democrat Jeff Golden, a current state senator running for reelection, is described glowingly as “an award-winning journalist” who “has worked to protect southern Oregon from wildfires, improve Oregon schools, and lower the cost of health care.”

Small type at the bottom of the website identifies its largest funders.

Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan has identified supplying accurate information to voters as one of her top priorities to build trust in elections. The Oregonian/OregonLive contacted the Secretary of State’s Office Monday to ask whether Fagan had any concerns that “The Oregon Voter Guide” seems to be telegraphing to voters that it is an official source of voting information and paying for ads to direct voters searching for the online Voters’ Pamphlet to its website instead.

A spokesperson for Fagan, Ben Morris, responded that he was “not able to reach the secretary for a comment.” The Oregonian/OregonLive offered Morris more time to get a comment from Fagan; he did not respond.

Morris did offer his own take in response to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s question about the site potentially misleading voters. “Oregon has a strong tradition of protecting the first amendment right to advocate for or against issues and candidates,” Morris wrote in an email. “So long as no election laws are broken, we don’t comment on campaign communications.”

Two years ago, public employee unions, Democrats and other political allies partnered on a nearly identical official-looking website, as well as mailers, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. At the time, the executive director of the largely union-funded political nonprofit Our Oregon said the group had been producing similar voter guides for years and was “purposefully explicit on who it came from and who was funding it.”

In 2020, Fagan was running for secretary of state and was endorsed by the unions that largely fund the voter guides.

The voter guide is part of an expansive voter turnout effort by Oregon Democrats, their political allies and groups supporting specific measures on the ballot this November. Public and private sector unions are staffing phone banks and canvassing to turn out voters who will support Democrats and back the ballot measures supported by their progressive political allies. In 2018, canvassers working to reelect Democratic Gov. Kate Brown handed out the voter guides.

Funders of “The Oregon Voter Guide” are just starting to ramp up spending on the project, which so far is being financed through two political action committees, according to campaign finance records from the Secretary of State’s Office. The 2022 Our Oregon Voter Guide PAC has nearly $500,000 on-hand, after raising $660,000 and spending $192,000, records show.

In addition to public employee unions and the Oregon nurses’ union, political action committees that support a ballot initiative to punish lawmakers who walk out of the state Capitol, Measure 113, have also donated to the 2022 Our Oregon Voter Guide PAC. So has the PCC Forward PAC, which supports a bond measure for Portland Community College, and Portland United for Change, the PAC formed by backers of a measure that would reshape Portland’s form of government and election system.

The Oregon Votes Yes PAC has nearly $550,000 on-hand and has reported spending less than $200, figures that could be out-of-date since Oregon allows political action committees to wait up to seven days to report transactions through Election Day. Nearly all of the second PAC’s funding so far comes from $500,000 donated by the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union.