OLYMPIA – Washington can protect democracy and free speech with a new law that would make it a crime for candidates and elected officials to lie about election results, Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday.
Inslee testified in support of his proposal that would make it a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail or a $5,000 fine, for candidates or elected officials to “knowingly, recklessly or maliciously” make false statements about election results.
To be punished under this bill, the claims must:
- be intended to incite or produce imminent lawless action or do produce such action;
- are made for the purpose of undermining the election process or results;
- and falsely claim that an elected official or candidate did not win after any lawful challenge is completed and the election results are certified.
Inslee announced on the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol and State Capitol Campus that he would be pursuing this bill. On Friday, he called the events on Jan. 6 “a horrific insurrection” that is a “harbinger of what is to come.”
“This isn’t our recent past,” Inslee said. “This is our future if we don’t act.”
Much of the other public testimony in the Senate State Government and Elections committee was against the bill, claiming it violates freedom of speech.
Jarod Sessler, who’s running for Congressman Dan Newhouse’s seat, said the proposal violates the First Amendment and the Washington state constitution. He called it “inappropriate” and “inaccurate.”
Paul Guppy at the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank, also testified against it. He said not allowing a debate on elections and elections results “creates more suspicion.” He pointed to the gubernatorial recount in 2004.
“That’s exactly a time period when we needed open and transparent debate,” he said.
Guppy argued those discussions would not be allowed under this bill.
Inslee, along with prime sponsor Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said it likely would not do that. Frockt said the bill only punishes speech that directly leads to “actual, physical violence.”
“That may be a high bar to prove, but it’s not impossible in all circumstances,” he told the committee.
Inslee said he has worked with constitutional law experts to craft the bill. He said it was very carefully written to protect the First Amendment.
George Washington University professor Catherine Ross, who helped write the language in the bill, testified in its favor Friday.
Ross said after hearing about Inslee’s proposal, she wanted to help and make sure it was “done right.”
“We have a very narrow window here and lots of obstacles,” she said.
Ross said there’s no way to know how this bill would hold up in court because it “treads a lot of fresh territory,” but she thinks it has “a real shot” at surviving.
“It’s worth taking the shot and letting it be tested,” she said.
Inslee said the state needs to act now to avoid another insurrection like Jan. 6.
“We are at a fork in the road,” Inslee said. “We either adopt passivity and the gradual loss of our democracy or we can take action in the defense of the fundamental foundations of democracy.”
The bill received a public hearing on Friday but has yet to be scheduled for a vote out of committee.