Seattle Times

Verify political candidates’ backgrounds

THIS fall, citizens will elect representatives for the state Legislature and many local office positions.

As campaign veterans who typically are on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, we are optimistic about seeing greater transparency during this 2014 campaign cycle.

Last year, through a pilot project launched in cooperation with the Municipal League of King County, candidates were asked to voluntarily participate in a free background check that would verify key qualifications for public office, such as work history and education credentials, as well as check for any criminal background.

This service, provided by the nonpartisan nonprofit CandidateVerification, has now expanded to include partnerships with four more groups and helped achieve a 60 percent rate of participation by Washington’s 2014 state legislative candidates.

CandidateVerification.org, the group’s website, is designed to build greater transparency in elections. Ultimately, its work will help raise the confidence bar and increase voter participation in elections.

Most Washington state voters assume that a candidate’s background is independently verified before the voter’s guide arrives in the mailbox. Or that a group that a voter trusts has conducted the same type of screening required when you apply to coach your kid’s soccer team. Sadly, this is not necessarily the case.

On more than one occasion, candidates across Washington state — Democrats, independents and Republicans — have been caught inflating their résumés. According to ADP, 53 percent of all job applications contain some type of résumé fraud. The majority of cases involve discrepancies around job titles, degrees earned or professional credentials. The results from our 2014 candidates corroborate those numbers.

In the zero-sum world of politics, the current business model calls for candidates to conduct opposition research and flood the airwaves with negative advertisements as the ballots arrive in your mailbox. Some of the concerns raised in these ads are legitimate, but they often fall on deaf ears because a culture has developed where neither side is trusted.

And with 500,000-plus elected officials in the United States, many of whom launch their public-service careers in local office, verifying their backgrounds should be an easy first step. Many of these people go on to higher elective office — they are your future legislators, Congress members, statewide officials and beyond. Confirming backgrounds early, deters future scandals at higher levels of government that would surely arise without this innovation.

Year after year of October surprises have a long-term corrosive effect on the public’s opinion of those who courageously put their name on the ballot. While there is no panacea for human foibles or deception, adopting the same first filter used by business, government and nonprofit organizations would build trust and raise the bar for public disclosure.

We encourage all voters, political donors, elected officials, activists, political action committees (PACs), parties and the news media to join the movement. Together we can build on the rich history of government transparency in Washington state for others to follow.

Noel Frame of Seattle and Erin McCallum of North Bend serve on CandidateVerification’s board of directors.