‘Progressive’ Sacramento’s race for mayor contributed to a lot of paper waste. Are campaign mailers even necessary anymore?  

Image by Possessed Photography

By Jacob Peterson

One nearly universal experience for voters during election season is a mailbox flooded with campaign messages.

Communicating with an electorate is arguably the most vital part of a political race, and one of the oldest ways of doing that is through the U.S. Postal Service. The Sacramento mayor’s race is no different, with a deluge of mailers being left at addresses all across the city. 

One of the Sacramento mayoral candidates, Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, said that his campaign sent out roughly 60,000 to 80,000 mailers ahead of the March 5 election. He noted that a key part of sending this literature out was in response to opposing mailers from special interest groups.

“People spent a million dollars attacking us,” McCarty explained. “We had to respond with mailers refuting these lies they were sending about me and my record.”

In other words, politics turned into paper waste begets more politics turned into paper waste. 

McCarty went on to assert that no other candidate in the race was attacked as much as he was, and that, if he didn’t respond to mailers with his own mailers, he might not have made it to the November runoffs. The mayoral hopeful added that his campaign has done what it can to make sure it’s not leaving litter behind, particularly in the form of campaign signs.

“I’m adamant about that,” McCarty said. “That’s been my standard for 20 years running for office.”

McCarty will be joining fellow candidate Dr. Flojaune Cofer in the November runoff election for the Sacramento mayor’s office. In contrast to McCarty, who sent out multiple different mailers, Cofer said her campaign had only sent out one design, shipping 32,163 copies to various homes.

“We decided to focus on the voters that were older,” Cofer detailed. “Environmental concerns is one of the things we were thinking about, but in particular we were trying to split the difference because we know sometimes the older voters don’t have as big of a digital footprint.”

Cofer’s strategy for mailers was to target a demographic over the age of 50. The bulk of her campaign’s outreach beyond that has either been through digital engagement or hosting events, as well as canvassing door to door.

“Mail is flat,” Cofer observed. “It’s incredibly limited in what it’s able to accomplish and so we wanted to have more dynamic conversations with people.”

Cofer argues it’s more practical to focus on in-person and digital engagement than sending out mail. Additionally, she said her campaign has encouraged supporters to hold on to primary campaign signs and re-use them for the November run-off.

Another candidate who was battling to be mayor — before the contest was whittled down to two — was Jose Antonio Avina II. The local gym owner and former Marine captain says he wasn’t comfortable with the environmental toll of mailers, choosing instead to utilize digital options where he could. 

“We used QR codes at the tables, so, if people wanted more information on A, my background or B, plans for the future of the city,” Avina said. “It wasn’t worth winning an election to sacrifice the planet.”

He added that some of the other candidates talked about “having the insight necessary to lead a city like Sacramento to be one of the forefronts of sustainability, but what their campaign was doing was the complete opposite.”

As the mayoral primary wound down, Avina saw the impact of the paper strategies with his own eyes when he dropped by other candidates’ campaign offices that, according to him, were stacked with signs that still hadn’t been used.

“All of that was waste,” he reflected. “I understand that they bought it in bulk because it’s cheaper per-unit, but all of that was waste — so where does that go after that?” 

The paper waste generated by the Sacramento mayor’s contest may not seem significant at first glance, but it contributes to a broader, growing trend. Kim Porter, the interim director of the Environmental Paper Network, said both paper consumption and production have increased in recent years.

“There’s a huge movement to stop the use of plastics, which is important, but we can’t just transition everything from plastic to paper,” Porter stressed. “That’s just substituting one material with a lot of impacts for another one.”

Porter said that while some of this paper does get recycled, much of it winds up in landfills. Additionally, she said that — on top of deforestation — paper production also brings with it concerns of greenhouse gasses, air pollution, and water and power usage.

The Environmental Paper Network is a network of organizations that work toward more sustainable practices with the pulp and paper industry, according to its website. In addition to this, the network also has a tool, the Paper Calculator, meant to help calculate the environmental impact of paper usage.

Dan Howells works with the network in addition to his duties as climate campaign director for Green America. Howells has also worked on multiple election campaigns over the years.

“If you look at one race or one candidate, every little bit hurts,” Howells said. “When you add up five candidates running for one position, then apply that across the state of California, it’s really significant.”

Howells does not even think the mailers are effective.   

“I would venture to guess that with these political mailers, that maybe 95% of them get tossed,” Howells speculated. “I mean, I’m an activist and I don’t even read them.”

Howells believes practice, which he describes as a “shotgun approach,” is mostly irrelevant with things going digital. He also notes that while more targeted mailings could help those in very rural areas, the approach is still based on assumptions about people’s ability to engage digitally. And, ultimately, the old-school, in-person approach may be the solution. 

 “If you’re really going to win a campaign,” Howells said, “it’s going to be going door to door, and that has nothing to do with paper.”

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and the James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19. 

Our content is free, but not free to produce

If you value our local news, arts and entertainment coverage, become an SN&R supporter with a one-time or recurring donation. Help us keep our reporters at work, bringing you the stories that need to be told.


Stay Updated

For the latest local news, arts and entertainment, sign up for our newsletter.
We'll tell you the story behind the story.

2 Comments on "‘Progressive’ Sacramento’s race for mayor contributed to a lot of paper waste. Are campaign mailers even necessary anymore?  "

  1. Where did the idea for this story come from? As someone who has worked on campaigns, I can say that direct mail is very effective at voter engagement, especially when everyone else is clamoring for attention online and leaving mailboxes relatively empty. The environmental impact is virtually nothing compared to the climate policies the new mayor may or may not enact. which candidate plans to increase Sac’s recycling capacities to eliminate the climate impact of their mailers, and which one will encourage the sprawl-style development that increases emissions, raises urban temperatures, and intensifies the cost of living crisis? I don’t know anything about the candidates or the race after reading this that I didnt know before.

  2. “I mean, I’m an activist and I don’t even read them.”
    Exactly. Same here. I seek out political conversation and information. I highly resent these wasteful pigs who insist on dropping off their paper garbage at my house. “Direct mail is very effective at voter engagement” — sure, I guess, as long as your goal is turning people off to your candidate. But there are still cheaper and more responsible ways of doing that too. But you do you Boomers — never change.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.