Commissioners decided to move forward with pre-filing the PDC’s proposed legislation for the upcoming 2022 session, but to continue working with concerned groups to modify the proposal.
Comments from nonprofit groups objected to some provisions in proposed agency request legislation on grassroots lobbying. They said weekly reporting during and in the month before a legislative session could have a chilling effect on small or all-volunteer groups that lack the staff to comply with a weekly reporting requirement. Currently, groups that either have in-house staff who lobby or that hire contract lobbyists report through those individuals monthly.
They also objected to how the proposed law would define grassroots lobbying as a campaign aimed at the public that is primarily designed to influence legislation, either directly or indirectly. They fear this could mistakenly include the educational and outreach efforts that nonprofits engage in.
Other concerns about the proposed legislation came from campaign treasurers, who objected to a proposed increase in the number of reports that describe expenditures in the month leading up to an election.
The intent of the proposed legislation on campaign reports is to increase transparency to the public, particularly in the final weeks before an election, when ad campaigns and expenditures often increase. The intent of changes to the grassroots lobbying provisions is to ensure timely reporting of lobbying efforts during the legislative session, and to make sure sponsors of grassroots lobbying efforts are clearly identified.
Once the PDC’s proposed legislation is submitted, the agency will consult with lawmakers on possible changes. Commissioners voted to direct staff to meet with concerned groups, hear their concerns and work out possible solutions both prior to filing the proposal and through the legislative process.
Digital political advertising rules
The Commission heard comments on proposed amendments to regulations regarding disclosure by digital political advertising providers, who are required to respond to public requests for information about the political ads they sell.
Written comments from the Washington State Association of Broadcasters (WSAB) urged the PDC to require record-keeping for digital political ads that’s the same as that required of broadcasters by the Federal Communications Commission.
The Campaign Legal Center (CLC) wrote in support of permitting additional time for a commercial advertiser to respond to a request for inspecting records, where the sponsor has not identified an ad as political advertising. The PDC proposal would allow three days in these circumstances. The current rule gives them 24 hours.
The CLC also wants the final rule to clarify the definition of digital communications platforms. And the organization suggested that the PDC specify how long commercial advertisers have to respond to a request for information from the PDC.
Google provided written comments which said that 24 hours is not always enough time for an ad to be included in its online political advertising transparency report. And it noted that three days is not enough time for the company to verify data on a political ad, if the information provided by the ad purchaser is incomplete.
Google also cautioned that some factors used to target ads might be considered proprietary information, and the company argued that digital commercial advertisers should not be held to more stringent standards that would reveal targeting information than non-digital advertisers.
Tallman Trask, who has purchased digital ads for campaigns, urged the Commission to restrict the use of extended time frames for disclosure by digital commercial advertising providers. He also urged the Commission to pause adoption of new rules until a pending lawsuit against Facebook over political ad disclosures is resolved. Trask filed a complaint against Facebook in 2019 that is part of the lawsuit.
Digital ads can aim at very specific audiences. They can target not only common demographic factors such as geographic location, education and
income level or gender, but also factors gleaned from online content a user has engaged with that reveal topics they’re interested in.
Commissioner debate at the meeting centered around what kinds of ad targeting information needs to be disclosed and how to ensure that requirements for digital media do not exceed those for other political ad vendors.
After considering public comments, the Commission decided to make a couple of small changes – including the retention of the requirement for commercial advertisers to identify which candidate or ballot measures the political ad identifies. Commissioners further directed staff to continue to evaluate the comments and prepare an updated draft proposal that will be considered for possible adoption in January.
2022 meeting dates
The Commission approved its regular meeting schedule for 2022:
Jan. 27 July 28
Feb. 24 Aug. 25
March 24 Sept. 22
April 28 Oct. 27
May 26 Dec. 8
Between Oct. 20 and Nov. 15, PDC staff closed 41 cases that stemmed from complaints filed by members of the public and 33 cases that were part of a PDC staff enforcement effort. Most involved candidates and officials who
failed to file a Personal Financial Affairs Statement (F-1) on time. Others involved failure to file a campaign registration on time.
There were 66 active cases as of Nov. 15. Browse enforcement case files on the PDC website.
Next Commission meeting: Jan. 27, 2022.