The ability of legislators to send mail to constituents at taxpayer expense is as old as the Republic. The first United States Congress adopted “franking” from England, providing free mailing privileges to elected officials.
The free postage was seen as an important method for lawmakers to stay in touch with their constituents. Of course, these mailings also amount to free advertising for incumbent politicians.
Franking privileges extend to the state level as well, and that brings us to the current controversy in West Virginia. The state Republican Party charges that a few House of Delegates Democrats are abusing the free mail service.
“At least thirteen Democrat members of the W.Va. House of Delegates have sent out thousands of letters and mail pieces to targeted likely voters at taxpayer expense,” reads a release put together by a Republican operative under the heading MailGate. “Many of the letters contain pictures of the incumbent politicians. All were printed, sorted, labeled and mailed at significant cost to taxpayers, with our tax dollars.”
The GOP says the most prolific mailers this year are: Ricky Moye (D-Raleigh) with 9,070 pieces, David Walker (D-Clay) with 8,344 pieces, Jim Morgan (D-Cabell) with 8,269 pieces and Justin Marcum (D-Mingo) with 7,364 pieces.
GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas contends the mailings were timed for maximum political benefit and, in at least some cases, sent to likely Democratic voters. He contends that’s tantamount to the state taxpayers paying for campaign advertising.
“These mailings are illegal and unethical,” Lucas said on Metronews Talkline Tuesday. “We have the state Democrat Party providing lists of frequent voters leading up to an election and those frequent voters are the only ones who received the campaign literature.”
However, Delegate Don Perdue (D-Wayne), who the GOP says sent out 4,050 pieces of mail, dismisses the allegations. “It’s much ado about nothing as far as I’m concerned,” Perdue said on Talkline. “I can’t speak to what anybody else sent.”
Perdue says he knows his mailings went to voters regardless of their registration because he got a call from a Republican who received the correspondence who wanted to argue with him.
Another Democrat I talked with charged that Lucas is being a hypocrite because he failed to criticize the considerable franking by Republican 1st District Congressman David McKinley. Roll Call reported in 2012 that between April 1, 2011 and March 31, 2012, McKinley’s mailings totaled $312,000.
The franking ruckus provides another wedge issue for West Virginia Republicans who are pushing to overtake the House of Delegates in November. Democrats currently hold a narrow 53-47 advantage.
A larger question, however, is given today’s technology where people can communicate instantly in multiple ways, it’s difficult to justify why taxpayers should continue to fund an archaic system that benefits the status quo.