Presidential candidates learned the hard way that if you don’t secure web addresses with your name, they can be held for ransom or used to attack them.
Now, some local candidates in the June 5 primary are also getting a lesson in hijacked websites.
It can be rather innocuous: Voters in Yolo County who type in “megstallard.com” won’t get the campaign website for the candidate for county supervisor. Instead, voters get sent to the political consulting website for current Supervisor Matt Rexroad, who is feuding with her and backing Stallard’s opponent, Gary Sandy.
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But in the Sacramento County sheriff’s race, it’s much uglier.
Unsuspecting voters searching for official candidate websites might land instead on several websites that use the names of Sheriff Scott Jones and former chief deputy Milo Fitch – but accuse them of all sorts of horrible behavior. (I’m not going to repeat these scurrilous allegations, and you’ll have to find the websites on your own).
An anti-Jones one is headlined: “Scandal Plagued Scott Jones Wants to keep mismanaging Sacramento Sheriff’s Department.”
The anti-Fitch sites stick the proverbial knife in further with this message in place of the usual disclosure on political material: “HaHaHaHaHa, cough, cough, HaHaHaHaHaHa - Bad Move - Plan Ahead Next Time for URL.”
The person, or persons, behind the websites – so far anonymous – appear to favor Bret Daniels, another contender who is a former deputy and current Citrus Heights councilman.
Daniels told me he’s seen the sites but has “nothing to do with any of them” and doesn’t know who is responsible.
But he refuses to completely disavow them, saying that if the information is factual, then they’re “fair.” “I hope they would not make something up,” Daniels said.
Local political consultant Matt Gray says he tried to submit material to the websites, but it wasn’t used and then the email submission address disappeared. He said he thinks the person responsible is a current or former sheriff’s employee because of the inside information.
Gray says while he’s more supportive of Daniels and another candidate, former sheriff’s sergeant Donna Lee Cox, he’s not working for any candidate.
As you might imagine, the Jones campaign is not pleased. Consultant Tab Berg says that anonymous attacks are not the right way to run a campaign. “If you want to say something, have the courage to say it directly,” he told me.
The Fitch campaign had no comment, other than it has no connection to any anonymous attack website.
If this were a TV show or a movie, a hacker would quickly track down who produced these sites.
But it’s a mystery, at least for now. And like a lot in politics these days, it’s technically legal, though not necessarily right.
If those behind the websites are coordinating with a campaign or if they’re being paid, they would have to disclose who they are, according to the state’s political watchdog. Otherwise, there are no real rules beyond their own scruples. California’s Fair Political Practices Commission does not regulate the content of political ads or sites.
So it’s free speech, but it’s dirty politics.
I only hope voters have the good sense to look past these anonymous sites. After all, some of the ads and mailers directly from candidates and campaigns will be nasty enough.
And it may be naïve, but I trust voters will focus less on negative attacks and more on candidates’ qualifications and stands on the issues.