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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control: As campaign season kicks off, new Washington laws put limits on ‘deepfakes’

Lights come on in the domed Legislative Building on the Washington Capitol Campus as evening approaches in Olympia.  (Jim Camden/For The Spokesman-Review / For The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

Monday is the beginning of candidate filing week, which means current and would-be office holders are putting the final touches on their campaign plans.

Some may be thinking of using “synthetic media” to create their campaign ads. After all, AI is the new hot thing. It could make you look so 2023, not some stick-in-the-mud candidate from way back in 2022. It could cut down on the cost of media production or even allow you to replace that pricey campaign consultant with a teen vlogger who’s good with computers.

Synthetic media could even make you look better or sound more loquacious than you are. Or make your opponent look or sound worse.

But candidates with any such plans should be aware a new Washington law has stricter rules for any synthetic media they might use in the upcoming campaign season.

That law, which passed the Legislature with bipartisan majorities, was signed last week by the governor. It requires any political ad that uses synthetic media – also known as deepfakes – to disclose it clearly in the ad.

If it contains a manipulated image in a printed ad, it must say so in letters at least as big as any other letters in the ad. If it contains a manipulated audio track, it must have an easily understood, spoken warning at the beginning and end of the commercial. If it has a manipulated video clip, the printed disclosure must appear for the duration of the commercial.

Failure to include those disclosures could give an opponent whose voice or likeness appears in the ad grounds to sue. Such a case would take precedence over most others waiting in line in the courts.

The law doesn’t make it illegal to make you look or sound better, or to put false words into your opponent’s mouth. The state Supreme Court, after all, has ruled that lying in campaigns is protected political speech, which can be countered in the marketplace of ideas that a campaign is supposed to be. The notification law is more like the truth-in-labeling requirement that lets you know whether that pricey salmon fillet at the supermarket comes from a wild coho or a farm-raised Atlantic salmon.

Looking ahead to 2024

While some candidates are preparing for this year’s election, others are in or thinking of joining the scramble for a major shift in Washington statewide offices coming in 2024. With Gov. Jay Inslee announcing he will leave after three terms, the opening at the top already has drawn two other statewide officials: Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz. Democratic State Sen. Manka Dhingra, who isn’t up for re-election next year, announced a campaign for AG.

With the political dominoes falling, the state Public Disclosure Commission is considering rules for candidates moving money leftover from a past campaign into a future one. Candidates tend to park their leftover campaign money into “surplus accounts,” generally a slush fund with few rules for how it can be spent.

They can use the money to run for a different office, but must first get the approval from the donor – which is not usually a big deal because donors probably think of the money as already spent. But until now, a candidate could move all of those approved contributions into their account for the new campaign as a lump sum contribution, the same as if the candidate was running for re-election to the office the donor originally gave the money for.

That made it hard for the average voter to track the original source of the money, and didn’t count against the contribution limits that donor must follow for the new campaign. Under new guidance, surplus money being moved to a campaign for a different office will have to be attributed to the donor who gave it to the old campaign, and will be counted toward the limit the donor is under for the new campaign.

This is a bigger deal for some candidates than others. Ferguson has some $2.7 million in his surplus account that could be moved into the gubernatorial campaign, while Dhingra has more than $220,000 and Franz has about $26,500.

Speaking of the state Supreme Court…

The state’s highest court is being asked to decide whether Franklin County complied with the 2018 Washington Voting Rights Act when it redrew boundaries for its county commissioners. It’s a complicated case in which Hispanic residents challenged the fairness of the system in court, the county and the challengers came to an agreement, then one county commissioner and a critic sued to overturn the new districts.

In the midst of the arguments over state and federal election laws, Washington and U.S. Constitutional voting protections and whether Hispanics are a majority or a minority in the county (in terms of total population they’re a majority, in terms of voting population they’re a minority) was a more general comment that might strike a chord in the controversy over redrawing Spokane City Council districts.

Joel Ard, attorney for the people challenging the redrawn Franklin County districts, acknowledged that some could consider his arguments cynical. But that’s OK, he suggested.

“It’s impossible to be too cynical when elected officials sit down and draw maps that will govern their own future re-election campaigns,” Ard added.

This hearkens to the controversy over Spokane’s redrawn lines after the Spokane City Council approved a map drawn by progressive Councilman Zack Zappone that makes his district more likely to elect liberals. While a judge ruled that the map was not illegally gerrymandered, he also said Zappone violated the spirit of city law and should not have submitted his own map for consideration.

Just a reminder

As stated earlier, candidate filing week starts Monday and runs through Friday. A candidate can file online by going to the county elections office website, or in person by going to the office before it closes Friday afternoon.

But remember that different counties have different office hours. In Spokane County, the elections office closes at 4 p.m., and paperwork must be in by then.