Rep. Kevin Yoder’s reelection campaign boasts an impressive $1.7 million cash on hand, according to his latest finance report.
But a 12”x15” glossy full-color mailer touting the “real results” he’s delivered for his district that showed up in area mailboxes this month was paid for not with campaign donations, but with taxpayer money.
And its arrival at homes after August 8 — the blackout date ahead of the November election for mailings using the Congressional franking privilege, which allows members of Congress to send mail to constituents at public expense — had some Shawnee Mission residents aggravated.
For decades, members of Congress used their franking privilege to send copy-heavy newsletters or notifications about upcoming town hall meetings. That started to change in the 1990s, says University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller, when campaign consultants began relying more and more heavily on direct mail. The tactics used in campaign mailers began to bleed over into taxpayer-funded franking privilege mail, which increasingly featured “feel-good” photos and heavily produced designs.
“The trend became that your franking mail started to look more like campaign pieces,” Miller said.
That trend’s presence here bothers a number of Yoder’s constituents. Kim Naramore, a registered Democrat, was among the recipients of the mailer who called Yoder’s Congressional office to complain after finding it in her box.
“I thought this couldn’t be legal,” she said. “Why would the taxpayers be funding his campaign mailers? Then I realized he was masquerading this 12”x15”, full-color, front and back campaign direct mail piece as a legislative update for his constituents who just so happen to be heading to the polls this November to vote on whether he still has a job.”
Naramore said she is upset that tax dollars are being used for what she sees as an obvious campaign tactic for a candidate she doesn’t support.
“This is taking advantage of me, my neighbors and the whole 3rd district,” she said. “It is taking our hard-earned money to help finance his campaign. I am tired of it.”
Costs, compliance with franking privilege unclear
Yoder’s office has not responded to several requests seeking information on the cost of the mailer, which constituents it was sent to, and when it was delivered to the United States Postal Service for processing.
Yoder spokeswoman Haley Brady would say only that “The constituent mail piece was approved by Republicans and Democrats on the franking commission.”
Congressional offices do have to report how much they have spent on franked mail — but those disclosures are not usually made public until 60 days after the end of each quarter. Thus, the public likely won’t know how much taxpayer money was spent on the 12″x15″ glossy mailer until after the election.
Yoder has tended to spend more on franked mail in election years than in off years. He spent a total of $69,000 in 2016; $66,000 in 2014; and $122,000 in 2012. By comparison, he spent only $36,000 in 2017 and $19,000 in 2015.
A number of constituents have also raised questions about the mailers’ arrival in mailboxes so close to the November vote. A rule passed in 1996 puts a blackout date on Congressmen sending franked mail within 90 days of an election.
Naramore said she took the mailer out of her mailbox on August 11 — though she says it’s possible it could have showed up the day before. Other area residents report receiving the mailer as late as August 14, nearly a week after the August 8 franking blackout.
However, according to the Congressional Franking Commission, “any mass mailing that was postmarked on or before 11:59 p.m. on August 8, 2018, is deemed to be compliant with the Franking regulations related to the blackout period.”
But since the mailing itself doesn’t have a postmark on it, and the United States Postal Service said it will not release any of the documentation on when it received and began processing the mailer, it’s difficult to say whether Yoder’s office complied with the regulations.
(“It is customer mailing information. It would be similar to you mailing an item, and a third party calling to find out information about your mailpiece,” USPS spokeswoman Stacy St. John said in response to our request for information about when the postal service processed Yoder’s franked piece. We’ve put in a Freedom of Information Act Request seeking the documents).
The Congressional Franking Commission only makes the advisory opinion forms it issues in response to franking applications available to view to people who come in person to the Legislative Resource Center in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C. People outside the nation’s capital don’t have the ability to review the documents.
The glossy mailer sent this month is not the first time Yoder’s use of the franking privilege around election time has drawn attention. In 2016, hundreds of constituents received a mailer with a photo of Yoder and several waving American flags just days ahead of the November election. Because the mailer was sent to fewer than 500 people, it was not considered a “mass mailing” under franking rules, and thus was permissible to send during the election blackout dates.
‘Free advertising is free advertising’
Yoder is certainly not the first Congressman to take advantage of his ability to send mail to constituents at no cost to his campaign during election season, Miller said. Yoder is facing the stiffest challenge for reelection he’s had to date. A poll commissioned Democratic challenger Sharice Davids’ campaign shows her with a slight edge over Yoder in the race, though the lead was within the margin of error.
“This kind of stuff from Yoder is increasingly common, particularly among newer members coming in,” Miller said. “The biggest frankers in an election year would be people like Yoder, who on paper at least look to be the most vulnerable.”
And while Miller said there’s been essentially no academic research on whether the use of such franked mailers have any marked impact on the outcome of an election, it’s not a surprise that many members take advantage of it.
“Of course if you’re a member of Congress, free advertising is free advertising,” Miller said. “Many of them use it especially in election years if for no other reason than it probably doesn’t hurt.”