Ted Cruz 'SUMMONS ENCLOSED' envelopes might deceive--but mailers aren't illegal

Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign enclosed a fundraising appeal in this envelope arguably similar to a government summons (San Antonio Express-News).
Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign enclosed a fundraising appeal in this envelope arguably similar to a government summons (San Antonio Express-News).

Some 50,000 Texans fielded a Ted Cruz fundraising appeal that arguably looks on the outside like a ten-hut call to government service--maybe jury duty.

Dramatically deceptive?

Not everyone thinks so and regardless, such attention-chasing isn’t against the law, we found, so long as a candidate or political committee presents a disclaimer owning up to paying for the message.

Cruz’s mailer drew public question in a May 24, 2018 editorial in the San Antonio Express-News that the Associated Press noted in a news story five days later. To our inquiry, an Express-News editor emailed us photos of the envelope and letter, which the paper says it fielded from a Kerr County recipient who considered Cruz’s approach misleading and intimidating. (The Austin American-Statesman partners with the Express-News and Houston Chronicle on the PolitiFact Texas project.)

The envelope

Cruz, a Republican who seeks re-election in November against Democratic Rep. Beto  O’Rourke of El Paso, sent the letter in brownish yellow envelopes.  

The middle of the front of the two-windowed envelope has four words, capitalized: "SUMMONS ENCLOSED -- OPEN IMMEDIATELY."

Smaller type on the top left corner of the envelope is broken into three lines starting with: "Official Kerr County Summons." The second line--"Voter Enrollment Campaign Division"--precedes the third and only factual line, "Ted Cruz for Senate 2018."

Cruz camp reports a single complaint

We didn’t hear back from Cruz about his mailer. But Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier told the Express-News: "Out of more than 50,000 mailers to the San Antonio area targeting likely supporters there was one complaint that came not to us but to the local media. Our mail efforts have been both effective and critical to identifying and engaging our supporters, and getting them involved in our campaign efforts to keep Texas strong."

Federal rules stress disclaimers

For our part, we asked the Federal Election Commission by email if it’s OK to ask people for money in letters tucked inside envelopes that might be viewed as urgent missives from government agencies.

A press officer, Judith Ingram, pointed out regulations stating that if a candidate or campaign "authorizes and finances a covered communication (including any solicitation), the notice must state that the communication was paid for by the authorized committee."

Another federal rule says disclaimers must be "clear and conspicuous" regardless of the medium in which the communication is transmitted. "A disclaimer is not clear and conspicuous if it is difficult to read or hear, or if its placement is easily overlooked," the commission says.

Aside from the Cruz mailer identifying the campaign on the third line of the envelope’s return-address section, the first page of his enclosed letter, which opens "Dear Fellow Conservative," is topped by a "Ted Cruz, Republican for US Senate" logo -- and that page ends with a disclaimer stating: "Paid for by Ted Cruz for Senate 2018."

Political consultants divide

Texas consultants we queried about the deceptiveness of Cruz’s summons to voters split along partisan lines.

Republican Craig Murphy said he didn’t see any fault to official-looking envelopes coming from campaigns, likening them to college groups posting signs saying, "Free Beer," and then saying: "Now that we’ve got your attention…"

"These (appeals) are self-healing," Murphy said by phone. "If people don’t like it, they don’t give. It’s the most normal thing in politics. It’s the attention-getter."

Democrat Jeff Crosby expressed concern by email that the envelope's "Summons Enclosed" message might lead people to think they’re in legal trouble.

"Cruz's campaign must think it's effective," Crosby said, "or they wouldn't do it. I have to wonder if for every supporter they gain, they lose another one angry about the deception."

Another Republican, Tex Dozier, responded after we sought perspective through the American Association of Political Consultants. Tactics like the Cruz envelopes, Dozier said, have gained wide favor among consultants of all kinds because the built-in "social pressure" on voters to act has a measurable effect as demonstrated in a study led by Alan Gerber, a Yale University political scientist. In 2006, Gerber’s team tested different mailers to Michigan voters, finding that mailers implying the most pressure to vote led to greater turnout.

Dozier said by email: "From neighborhood ‘Voter Report Cards’ to voter enrollment ‘Official Summons,’ campaigns must be do everything in their power to identify supporters, to raise money, to have their content consumed." Items like the Cruz envelope, Dozier wrote, represent "authoritative pressure" to make a voter immediately open the envelope "in a world of competing information overload."

Flashback: Cruz mailers in Iowa

We’ve explored a touchy Cruz mailer before.

After Cruz prevailed in Iowa’s 2016 Republican presidential caucuses, questions arose about whether his campaign had ginned up the voting histories of residents in social-pressure mailings intended to spur turnout.

Cruz said at the time: "I will apologize to no one for using every tool we can to encourage Iowa voters to come out and vote."