The billboard reads: “A pretty face isn’t enough. Issues matter. Compare, then vote.” Grinning at the side of the text, is a cat with wide yellow eyes. Underneath it is the url: RenoElections.org.
More than any other ad from the site, the Cheshire cat-like image has raised eyebrows in the past few weeks. Multiple news outlets have written about the site, and many have wondered who is behind it and questioned whether it is engaged in campaign activities. Paul White, the site’s founder, says the answer to that question is clear. The site, he says, is for voter education.
“We’re not an election organization,” White said. “We are voter education and information.”
White’s organization, RenoElections.org, sent out questionnaires earlier this cycle to all of the candidates running for mayor, City Council and school board for the Washoe County School District. The questions focus largely on the city’s debt, perceived corruption and homelessness. Many questions include an introduction, setting up the issue. None of the incumbents answered the questionnaire, arguing that the website framed the issues in a slanted way.
As a result, they are not represented on the website.
“They saw the questions and backed off immediately,” White said. “Much to our dismay.”
A question on homelessness, for instance, begins with this pointed framing of the homeless issue: “City leadership believes that Reno shares the blame for its homeless problems because they have failed to provide sufficient housing and support services for the many homeless vagrants wanting to change their lives. Other voices in the community believe the fault lies with the many service-resistant homeless vagrants themselves who have no desire to change their self-destructive lifestyles and utilize the abundant and available support services.”
White admits that he has a viewpoint and cares about specific issues, such as homelessness and the city’s debt, but he argues that the website is “nonpartisan” and not pushing candidates.
But incumbents have argued that the website is partisan and could be crossing the line, given their nonprofit status. Earlier this year, Reno City Councilwoman Naomi Duerr met with White. Duerr said she did not want to fill out the questionnaire because she did not believe that it was coming from a credible voter information organization such as the League of Women Voters.
“I said, ‘I do not feel comfortable filling out this questionnaire because it did not seem like the type of questionnaire I would get from a nonpartisan election organization,’” Duerr recalled.
There has long been litigation and debate around the dividing line between a voter information service and express advocacy for a candidate or a ballot question. Wayne Thorley, the deputy secretary of state for elections, said that groups must register with the state if they are soliciting money to influence the outcome of an election on behalf of a campaign. But there is continued ambiguity in the law over what type of information is considered a campaign activity.
There are some clear examples. The use of certain “magic words” or phrases, such as “vote for” or “vote against” are clear signs that a group is expressly advocating on behalf of a campaign.
Without those words, a group or organization, billed as a voter information service, could still be deemed an express advocacy organization. In that case, though, it is a matter of interpretation.
“If they are claiming to simply present information about the candidates, then they should be OK,” said Eric Herzik, the chair of UNR’s political science department. “If they are making specific recommendations then there is a whole new set or rules they have to follow.”
Two election attorneys interviewed for this story had slightly differing views on the issue. David O’Mara, a Reno election attorney who reviewed the website for this story, wrote in an email that, at first glance, the website “does not appear to be mechanism for express advocacy.”
“The website does not include any so-called “magic words,” he said, “nor do I believe that the only interpretation of the website’s content is to advocate for a clearly identified candidate or ballot question. It simply is a voter guide where some candidates chose to participate and some did not.”
But Bradley Schrager, a Las Vegas election lawyer, said the questionnaire could amount to something like a push poll, where slanted questions are used to favor one side or the other.
“The conduct of this group seems close to express advocacy in the context of the Reno local elections,” Schrager said in an interview. “In the end, it’s the responsibility of individual campaigns or parties to complain about unregulated advocacy, if that’s what is occurring.”
And so far, none have filed a complaint.
When asked about whether the website or the billboards had crossed the line into express advocacy, White said “we are close. We are on the right side of it. Tell the election lawyer to call our lawyer. We are 100 percent [aware] of what the IRS rules are. We are completely neutral.”
Still, many candidates remain skeptical of what the site’s motives are. Duerr was dismayed, she said, when she asked White to release his funding and he replied that it was private information.
“That really puzzled me,” Duerr said. “That really was my kind of final red flag.”
Renoelections.org operates within a nonprofit known as Scientific Being Research Foundation Inc, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) that is based in Irvine, California and has existed since 2000. In its 2016 tax return — the most recent available on ProPublica’s searchable database — the group reported receiving the majority of its funding — $738,750 — from Griswold Industries, a company based in California.
David Griswold, a businessman who has a house in South Washoe, is listed as the foundation’s president in the tax return, and White confirmed that he was one of the people who helped fund the nonprofit and renoelections.org. He has no record of contributions to Nevada candidates.
“I am not directly involved and I have nothing more to say,” Griswold said when reached by phone.
White said Griswold provided most of the “start-up” funding but that the operation has other donors. He declined to name the other donors because the website is still in its early stages.
“We’re waiting to see the [election] results of it, and see where we go from there,” he said.
Although one member of the foundation board lives in Incline Village, White himself is relatively new to Reno, having moved here from Ventura, California about a year ago. He said that he left California because of what he sees as happening in the state.
“When it becomes all about partisanship and personalities, it has destroyed California,” he said.
Since moving here, White has been active in expressing his opinions in several Reno-Gazette Journal columns. In one column in August criticizing the City of Reno on homelessness, he wrote: “The street-dwelling, quality-of-life-destroying individuals you see in public every day choose to be there. Hiding behind the ‘homeless’ label, they are in fact, vagrants by choice.”
White has said the website plans to release more ads. For many, the billboard displaying the grinning cat saying “a pretty face doesn’t matter” was a direct attack on particular candidates.
“I’m offended,” said Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, who argued that the billboard was gendered. “Regardless of whether it’s me, I think it’s inappropriate for all women running for office.”
White rejects such statements, saying that it plays on the adage “that it takes more than looks.”
“When you’ve got no defense and you’re not willing to publicly stand up and explain your record as a politician, all you’ve got left is try to name call and hide behind your gender,” he said.
“This is someone who is unhappy with how he perceives the city as being run,” she added.
Schieve said she also met with White and that she even brought in the homeless shelter’s director to talk to him and hear some of his concerns about how the shelter was being run.
Schieve’s opponent Eddie Lorton said he had not seen the billboard, but felt that the media coverage of the site was meant “to delegitimize them so people won’t take them seriously.”
“I’ve got more to do than worry about what other people are doing,” he added.