Thousands of voters who got Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters' "official sample ballots" this week might have wondered at her recommendations for president.
One version of the fliers, which are made to look like ballots, have bright red circles around the names of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and his running mate, Winona LaDuke. In another version, the names of Libertarian candidate Harry Browne and running mate Art Olivier are circled.
On Thursday, the Waters camp was scrambling to correct the mistake; the congresswoman from Los Angeles' 35th District firmly supports the Al Gore/Joseph I. Lieberman ticket.
"It was a printing error," explained Karen Waters, the congresswoman's daughter and spokeswoman for campaign activities. "It has been corrected, and voters will receive a letter of apology."
Nader campaign officials, of course, said no apology was necessary.
"All we can say is, thank you, thank you, great campaign karmic gods," said Ross Mirkarimi, state director of the Nader 2000 effort.
Political consultant Parke Skelton said he thinks "it's funny."
"But I also think it will cost Gore some votes. Not enough to put the state in danger, of course. But Waters definitely has a following, and some people may follow the recommendations," Mirkarimi said.
That would be particularly fortuitous for Nader, he added, "who has not been polling well in African American communities."
But Joyce Marshall, a designer of political direct mail, disagreed that the error is funny. "This is not a small error. It's totally serious." Marshall and others have long been critical of Waters' phony sample ballots, which are adorned with the same flag, seal and layout as the real thing.
Robert Stern, a former chief counsel for the state Fair Political Practices Commission, has decried the mailers as "really outrageous."
Waters' mailer does contain a disclaimer on each page, as well as asterisks next to the names of the candidates who paid to be listed among those backed by the influential Democratic legislator and chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Waters first mailed a version of the mock ballot in 1992. So far, the mailer has survived state scrutiny.
In years past, candidates have invested heavily in the tactic. In 1998, the Checci for Governor campaign spent $50,000 to be included; the campaign to elect Bill Lockyer attorney general paid $15,000.
"This strategy has been done in the past," the congresswoman's daughter said, "and we think voters look forward to receiving them."
Maxine Waters said 10,000 to 15,000 voters saw the boo-boo.
"It was small enough to have a rerun and have the mailers back out in the mail by [Thursday]. At the same time, a coordinating campaign did telephone calls into all those homes Wednesday night," she said, "so the damage control was quick and effective."