Cecil County Politics: ‘Robocall’ in County Exec Race Pushes Negative Message; Could Run Afoul of New State Election Regs

April 2, 2019
By

A CECIL TIMES Special Report

A recent political “robocall,” purporting to be a poll of voter sentiment in the 2020 Cecil County Executive race, pushed negative messages about the incumbent in an apparent effort to influence listeners’ votes and potentially float trial balloons for further negative messages. But the call could run afoul of new state Board of Elections (BOE) regulations.

The new regulations, adopted by the BOE in late March, would force political candidates to accept fiscal responsibility for these tactics that in the past escaped public disclosure through loopholes that hid who paid for the polls, and the beneficiaries of such activities. Now, even if a candidate did not directly pay for such “polls,” he/she would have to declare the “value” of the information obtained from the poll as an “in kind” donation on public financial disclosure reports.

Multiple sources, all Republicans, told Cecil Times about a recent automated telephone call (“robocall”) they received asking about potential candidates in the 2020 GOP primary for County Executive. The call carried no campaign committee tagline, as required by state law for a campaign-initiated communication, but an entity identified only by a three-letter name claimed at the beginning of the call that it was conducting an opinion poll. The caller-ID number shown to recipients listed a Glen Burnie, MD address, but a CECIL TIMES search of phone databases found the number was a masked phone not attributable to any person or business.

“The call started out friendly but quickly got real negative,” said one recipient of the call.

Another recipient said the call began by asking if they supported or would vote for President Trump. Then the call said it was turning to “local elections” and asked whether they would vote for Alan McCarthy, the incumbent executive who has already filed for re-election. Then the call inquired if they would support Dan Schneckenburger, a former County Council member who lost a previous race for county executive to McCarthy, and also asked if they would vote for Bill Coutz, a new member of the County Council elected last year.

Then the call shifted to negative statements about McCarthy, asking listeners if they would change their vote if they “knew” certain “facts” about his personal history or his past county fiscal policies.

Coutz told CECIL TIMES emphatically that he had nothing to do with the robocall: “Absolutely, 100 percent no.” He also said he was not running for county executive in 2020. He said he received multiple calls from county residents about the robocall and while it initially made him “chuckle” that he would be included, he was actually upset that his name was brought into such a call.

Schneckenburger, who has lost his last two election campaigns—against McCarthy for county executive and for re-election to his former County Council seat—is widely expected to run in the GOP primary against McCarthy and has been active on social media with critical comments about the current executive. CECIL TIMES has called him for comment on the robocall and will update this report upon his response.

The targeting of one candidate, in what is purported to be a broad survey of opinion about all potential candidates in a race, and trying to get listeners to change their preference comes under the classification of a “push poll,” which is considered unethical by national professional polling organizations because it is not an unbiased reflection of existing voter preferences.

The National Council on Public Polls has warned that such surveys are “thoroughly unethical” because they are “masquerading as legitimate political polling,” according to the professional association, which includes major national polling organizations as members adhering to its ethical code. Instead, push polls “are political telemarketing” rather than unbiased research.

Dr. Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said that such polling tactics are “an effective way to target a negative campaign.” The Goucher College center conducts independent public polling that is highly respected in the state and nationally and makes its survey results available to the public and the news media.

She said that the Cecil County robocall seemed like it might be more of a “message testing” poll, which falls into a more nuanced area than push polls on the ethical scale.

Such “message testing” polling seeks to “see what message resonates with voters” so that a candidate can tailor future ads or calls to those views, she said. That type of polling, which can be a legitimate way to gauge voter sentiment, is intended purely for the use of a particular candidate and the public “never gets to see the results,” Dr. Kromer said.

She noted that such surveys, and who actually pays for them, usually escape public disclosure through “loopholes” in campaign finance laws. And “message testing” surveys are more costly to conduct, since their accumulated data is usually ultimately delivered to a candidate for use in future campaign activities. In contrast, straight “push polls” designed simply to put out negative messages with no regard for actually compiling opinion data are relatively cheap to conduct, she added.

(Schneckenburger’s campaign finance committee had a balance of $6,911, according to his most recent January, 2019 report, including a $2,000 donation from US Rep. Andy Harris (R-1).)

Meanwhile, the cost of the recent robocall may ultimately have to be disclosed by whatever political campaign received any information about its results, under new state BOE rules.

Jared DeMarinis, director of the Candidacy and Campaign Finance Division of the BOE, said in an interview with CECIL TIMES that the new regulations he proposed last year—and were recently adopted by the full Board—are intended to account for the “value” of poll data to individual campaigns even if they did not pay for it originally.

“The whole point is that if [poll findings] are not in the public domain, the information is proprietary but it has a value” to a political campaign,” he said. The regulations set up a sliding scale of financial value that a campaign would have to disclose as an “in kind” donation on public disclosure reports.

It would not matter, he said, if the poll was conducted now, long before the April 2020 party primary election. If information obtained from the survey is transmitted to a candidate but not disclosed to the public, its costs would be “100 percent” attributable to the candidate’s campaign as an “in kind” donation that must be reported on disclosure forms.

He said the value of such information was “just like a tee shirt” that someone pays to print and then gives the shirts to a campaign to hand out to supporters. The value of the tee has to be disclosed as an ‘in kind” donation to the campaign.

In contrast, if a candidate obtained information simultaneously with a public disclosure of poll results to the news media, it would have “no value” because everyone else also had access to the data, he added.

But the nature of push polls or message testing surveys is that their results are not generally available to the public, so they have intrinsic value to the campaign that receives information from the survey. “It did cost money” to conduct the survey, DeMarinis said, so it should be accounted for.

The new BOE regulations appear to be groundbreaking, and set a higher threshold for public disclosure and accountability. Dr. Kromer said the rules were “interesting” and could set a new standard for accountability in state campaigns.

Meanwhile, McCarthy, the incumbent and the target of the negative robocall, said he was “disappointed” that the campaign had taken such a divisive tone, especially so early in the election season.

“I am focused on moving Cecil County forward, and bringing new jobs and needed services to county residents,” he said. “I don’t have time for negative and juvenile games that are just trying to drive a wedge into our community for purely political purposes.”

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