Florida Passes Technology in Elections Act

i approved this tweet.

Florida’s election laws are in the news again, and this time for a decidedly technology-forward reason. Florida’s House of Representatives recently passed Technology in Elections Act (HB 869).  [St. Petersblog 2.0] [Google Public Policy Blog].

As the Obama campaign showed us, social media and other Internet technologies are becoming an integral part of modern campaign efforts because they empower candidates to get the word out to the masses quickly and cheaply.  But as campaign communications move to the web, some are wondering, can state election laws keep up?

Many states have transparency laws that govern campaign advertising and impose disclosure requirements. These are the laws that you can thank for the “I approve this message”-style disclaimers. Most of these laws were written without technologies like Facebook, Twitter, AdWords in mind, and there has been confusion in some areas about whether and how the laws apply to internet advertising and other forms of communication on the web.

For example, Scott Wagman, a candidate in the 2009 St. Petersburg mayoral election, found himself the subject of a complaint submitted to the Florida Elections Commission as a result of his Google AdWords campaign. The complaint charged that Wagman’s campaign used the names of his opponents as keywords. This meant that if someone searched for the name of Wagman’s opponents, Google would display an ad directing the person to Wagman’s campaign website. [TampaBay.com]

While this AdWords strategy itself raises some interesting issues (it may strike some as brilliant and others as sinister), it wasn’t the keywords that were the problem.  According to the complaint, the problem with Wagman’s strategy was that his ads did not contain the political disclaimer required by Section 106.143(1)(a) of the Florida Statutes.

The Florida Election Commission investigated the complaint and ultimately concluded that there was “no probable cause to charge [Wagman]” with the violation. They reasoned that although Wagman’s ads did not contain the required disclaimer, his actions were not willful. After all, Google’s ads only have two lines of text making it virtually impossible to fit the entire required disclaimer into the allotted space.

Florida’s new law attempts to strike a balance between the need for transparency and candidates’ desire to avail themselves of new technologies. For example, pursuant to HB 869, if a “paid link” on the web “is no more than 200 characters” and links “to another Internet website that [includes the disclaimer]” then the paid link need not include the disclaimer itself.

-For the full text of the bill, click here.
-For the Florida House of Representative’s Staff Analysis of the bill, click here.
-For the Florida FEC’s decision regarding the Wagman complaint (via Tampabay.com), click here.

What do you think of Florida’s new law? Are there other states that have enacted something similar?

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