Local elections are coming up. Here’s how to fact-check campaign mailers before casting your ballot

No matter your position on the political spectrum, you’re likely to start receiving campaign mailers and other advertisements from candidates running in November’s local elections.

This literature can include bold claims about a candidate’s convictions, accomplishments and involvement in high-interest local projects. But informed voters won’t just take these advertisements at face value: They will want to dig deeper and fact-check candidates’ claims.

On Tuesday, Nov. 7, voters in the metro will choose city officials in Johnson County, weigh in on ballot questions in Kansas City and vote on other local issues. The Star asked political science professor Bob Beatty of Washburn University in Topeka how to scrutinize campaign materials for yourself. Here are some of his top tips for voters.

Figure out who is paying for the advertisement 

Political campaign ads are required to list who is paying for them. The sponsor’s name will likely be in small print on the bottom or back of the flier you receive in the mail. Beatty says this information is a good place to start when looking into the reliability of an advertisement.

If the sponsoring group includes the name of the specific candidate, their campaign can be held accountable for what’s printed on there. But a more vague group name that doesn’t mention a particular candidate indicates a political action committee, or PAC, which doesn’t have to disclose its donors.

“Anything from a PAC, you have to be aware that we may not know who that is, and that’s information in itself,” Beatty said.

Check the citations on claims — if there are any 

Whether you’re perusing a mailer or watching a TV ad, Beatty noted that many campaigns will include citations for their claims. Ads may cite a candidate’s past vote, a speech, a bill they sponsored or another record. 

“If anybody’s doing that, that’s a good sign,” Beatty said. But he added that these references are worth checking out for yourself to see whether a quote or position was taken out of context.

He recalled an example in which a political ad called Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly “weak on crime,” citing recommendations from a policing commission she had formed. 

“I went and looked at it, and they took a big leap from what the commission was talking about to, ‘Kelly’s weak on crime,’” he said. “That was an example, and I was able to look it up on the internet.”

Beatty added that in a crowded election season, voters may choose to disregard political ads entirely that don’t include citations for their claims. 

“In an election in which there’s a lot of material, many voters may want to say, ‘That’s my filter. If they want to make a claim, they need to back it up… and if they don’t, I’m just going to ignore it,’” he said.

Look up which bills incumbents have sponsored 

Many political candidates, even at the local level, have already served in some type of elected office. Their actions in those offices may speak louder than the words they print on campaign literature, Beatty told The Star. 

“Rather than getting caught up in negative ads, see what it is they have that they’ve supported,” he said. Voters can find their state-level elected officials in Missouri using the state Senate’s Legislator Lookup tool. Each elected official’s name will link to their legislator page, which includes a list of bills they have sponsored.

In Kansas, you can find legislators’ committee memberships and sponsored bills by looking them up by name on the Kansas Legislature’s website under the ‘Find Your Legislator’ tab. 

Beatty added that while it’s harder to verify the positions of unelected candidates, reputable ones will have their policy platforms clearly listed on their campaign websites. 

Find out more about the candidate’s endorsers 

Endorsements are another clue that can help voters verify candidates’ claims. Beatty recommended doing a quick web search for groups you’ve never heard of before to see whether they are legitimate.

“What they may do is have some group that you’ve never heard of, and they’re trying to fool you,” he said. “It (could be) like a group of three people that put ‘abortion’ in their name. But you could easily Google an organization that someone says has endorsed them.” 

He added that campaigns rarely lie about endorsements from legitimate organizations, since these are easy to debunk by simply asking the group in question.

If you aren’t sure about a candidate’s positions on the issues that matter to you, their endorsement by a trusted organization can indicate whether they are worth researching further. 

Beware of charged language “nationalizing” local races 

When scrutinizing a campaign’s claims, it’s important to keep in mind what office the candidate is running for. 

Beatty said that both positive and negative ads may invoke national politics, link candidates to other better-known politicians and make claims that don’t actually pertain to the job they are seeking. 

“What some parties or candidates do is, they’ll nationalize a state or local election. And they’re not necessarily lying, but they’re trying to change the way a voter thinks,” he said.

This may involve accusations of “wokeness” that don’t relate to specific policy platforms, references to contentious topics like abortion or transgender rights or statements aligning candidates with national figures like Joe Biden or Donald Trump. 

“Something the voters should think about is, does this information have much to do with the actual office this person is running for? (Or) is really all they’re sort of telling you… their political party?” Beatty said. 

Turn to reputable local sources for unbiased information 

It can be hard to know whether to trust campaign materials or the candidates behind them. But Beatty advised that, when in doubt, voters should turn to reputable local institutions to help them parse these claims. 

“There’s established media outlets in Kansas city — these are local people producing local news,” he said. “Some of the reporting that comes out during local elections by state and local outlets is immensely valuable.”

A few examples of helpful local reporting can include candidate interviews, investigations into campaign donors and voter guides that record every candidate’s responses to a small number of questions, allowing voters to compare their positions. 

Beatty added that candidates who make themselves available to the media and the public are typically more trustworthy than those who skirt accountability. 

“That’s something voters should consider: If they won’t debate, why not?” he said. “Candidates that seem to be hiding a bit might be just sort of coasting on their party identification or their incumbency, and that’s something a voter has to think about.”