September 14, 2020

Emerging issues around digital political ads 

Commissioners heard an update about the work Vice Chair Fred Jarrett and Commissioner Russ Lehman are leading to research problems and potential solutions for the complex issues created by the rise of digital political advertising.
PDC staff members are consulting with researchers, political consultants, media, the digital ad industry and regulatory officials in other states to explore potential improvements to disclosure requirements around digital ads.
The first step is to discern what information is important to the public to learn from digital political ads, and who should provide that information.
A potential solution is a public digital political ad archive. But Jarrett noted that the PDC must “make sure we understand the problem we are trying to solve” before arriving at a solution.
He said Washington’s public disclosure laws are built around old media, including print and broadcast, and that modern electronic communications involve other issues.


Commission refers Google case to attorney general


The five-member Commission voted unanimously to refer two 2019 complaints against Google to the state attorney general’s office. 
The complaints (PDC case documents here and here) allege that Google violated state campaign finance laws that require commercial advertisers to maintain records known as “books of account” for political advertising. Those records are to be made available to members of the public upon request, so that they can see who is paying for political ads.
The complaints against Google have been under review by PDC staff. Executive Director Peter Lavallee brought the cases to the Commission for review due to his assessment that “continued investigation of this matter will involve the expenditure of substantial resources by the PDC.”
To read more background on this decision, click this link.


Budget update 


Executive Director Peter Lavallee told Commissioners that the PDC is outlining potential cuts and budget savings, pending legislative budget action. 
“This agency has been transformed over recent years,” he said, adding that drastic cuts would erase progress the agency has made in efficiently handling cases and improving filer assistance. 
But he said the PDC must also face the realities that the state has many important priorities in its budget. 
One potential temporary solution would ask the Legislature to fill PDC budget gaps from the Public Disclosure Transparency Account, established in 2018. It is funded with fines and fees the agency collects, but the Legislature must appropriate money from the account. The PDC plans to ask for funding from that account to sustain three current temporary positions – two IT positions and one training and outreach position. 
Commission Chair David Ammons said that he hopes that if the Legislature does not give the PDC full access to the Transparency Account, that lawmakers continue to appropriate dollars for IT projects from it. 
“That is how we and they envisioned (the fund), as IT specific,” he said. 

Enforcement actions


PDC staff closed a total of 39 cases between July 15 and Aug. 18, 2020. 
Of those, three were closed with written warnings (details are here, here and here) and three with a statement of understanding (here, here and here), in which respondents acknowledge a violation, file or amend reports and pay a penalty.
As of Aug. 18, there were 71 active cases. Click on this link for details about other enforcement cases.

Special meeting scheduled


The Commission agreed to set Oct. 15, 2020, as the date for a special meeting to discuss the PDC’s strategic plan.


Next regular Commission meeting: Sept. 24, 2020