Posted on
September 26, 2022

Digital platforms possess data that could offer the public more information about political advertising – if only they were willing to share it, say experts from the Center for Information Technology Policy, based at Princeton University.

The Public Disclosure Commission heard a presentation from the center’s Mihir Kshirsagar, Christelle Tessono and Orestis Papakyriakopoulos, who studied how algorithms shape the distribution of political advertising on platforms such as Facebook, Google, YouTube and TikTok. Their findings were published in a report, which they summarized for the Commission.

The team analyzed more than 800,000 ads and 2.5 million videos about the 2020 presidential election.

They found that each platform defined political ads differently, making it difficult to make comparisons across platforms. Tiktok, which prohibits direct political advertising, nonetheless allowed certain “influencers” that were directly linked to political non-governmental organizations or PACs, while others asked for donations, the researchers said.

The researchers had recommendations for both campaigns and digital platforms. They suggest a machine-readable “universal identifier” linked to a campaign’s spending across platforms. And they called for better disclosure, finding that the information in major platforms’ political ad libraries fell far short of what has long been required for broadcasters.

Commissioner William Downing said the Commission often hears from campaigns and digital platforms that ad targeting criteria is only of interest to rival campaigns, not voters. But Kshirsagar said “the public interest in this is huge, especially as it relates to local and state elections.”

Update on legislative proposal

The Commission continued its discussion of proposed legislation it plans to request during the 2023 session of the Legislature. The proposed legislation would:

  • Adjust campaign reporting to align with the vote-by-mail election period by adding one additional C-4 reporting date. Campaigns would have two days from the end of the reporting period to file it. Feedback from treasurers led the Commission to move the proposed additional day from 27 days prior to the election to 34 days prior to the election. That move maintains two-week periods between each of the tree C-4 reports that would be due during that critical period.
  • Extend expedited registration for committees that organize close to the election date. Instead of requiring registration during a three-week window, the requirement would extend to the start of the last full month before the election.
  • Raise the reporting threshold for last-minute contributions (LMCs) to $2,000, and link it to the contribution limit for statewide office. The LMC period would increase from 21 days prior to an election to the start of the first full month before the election.
  • Require sponsors to identify their ads as political messages to the companies that sell them the advertising.
  • Enhance grassroots lobbying disclosures by requiring sponsor identification on the associated communications, and by requiring quicker registration by entities not eligible for reporting through a lobbyist.
  • Make the existing Transparency Account, the repository of penalties for violations of campaign finance laws, a non-appropriated fund.

Petition for declaratory order

The Commission received a petition asking for a declaratory order related to how filers should describe expenditures when reporting them on the C-4. The petition, filed by campaign treasurer Conner Edwards, said that new guidance from the PDC last year asked for additional details that were not required in the past.

The added details are included in a drop-down menu that is part of the ORCA (Online Reporting of Campaign Activity) software that the PDC is continuously updating in preparation for a move to store ORCA data in the cloud.

The Commission has 30 days to act on the petition. The Commission agreed to give PDC staff time to develop recommendations and to discuss the matter and possibly take action at its Oct. 27 meeting.

Enforcement hearings

The Commission issued fines after conducting six enforcement hearings involving elected officials and former officials who failed to file Personal Financial Affairs (F-1) statements on time.

Pamela A. Martin, commissioner for Coal Creek Utility District, failed to file an F-1 report for calendar year 2021 on time. Martin had one prior violation for failing to file an F-1 for calendar year 2020. A $250 fine for that violation was paid, but the report was not filed before the hearing.

The Commission voted to impose a $1,000 fine for the current violation, with $500 suspended, as long as both missing reports are filed and the current fine paid within 30 days.

Natalie Marx, former treasurer for Douglas County, failed to file an F-1 report for calendar year 2021 on time. The report was filed before the hearing. Marx had one prior violation for failure to file a 2020 report, and had not paid an outstanding $250 fine for that violation as of the hearing date.

The Commission voted to fine Marx $500 for the current violation, but suspend $400 of the fine if the 2020 report is completed, the current fine is paid and the outstanding $250 fine is paid within 30 days.

Mike Slobojan, commissioner for East County Park & Recreation District, failed to file an F-1 report for 2021 on time. Slobojan had one prior violation for failure to file an F-1 report for calendar year 2020, and had not paid the $250 fine for that violation as of the hearing date.

The Commission voted to fine Slobojan $1,000 and suspend $500 if both the current and 2020 reports are filed, and both the current fine and the outstanding $250 fine is paid within 30 days.

John R. Martin, former commissioner for Grant County Hospital District 4, failed to file an F-1 report for calendar year 2021 on time. Martin had two prior violations within the past five years, for failure to file F-1 reports for calendar years 2019 and 2020. Neither report was filed by the hearing date, but a $500 penalty for the missing 2019 report was paid. A $500 penalty for the missing 2020 report was still outstanding at the time of the hearing, and has been sent to collections.

The Commission voted to fine Martin $2,000, but suspend $1,000 if delinquent reports for 2019, 2020 and 2021 are filed and current fine paid within 30 days, and the outstanding $500 penalty is paid through the collections agency.

Nathaniel McMillion, former regent/trustee for Central Washington University, failed to file an F-1 report for 2021 on time. The report was filed before the hearing.

McMillion had one prior violation with an unpaid $250 penalty for failing to file an F-1 report for calendar year 2020.

The Commission voted to fine McMillion $500 for the current violation, but suspend $400 of the fine if the 2020 report is completed, the current fine is paid and outstanding $250 fine is paid within 30 days.

Ray Wardenaar, former commissioner for Grant Fire Protection District 10, failed to file an F-1 report for calendar year 2021 on time. Wardenaar had one prior violation for failure to file an F-1 report for calendar year 2020. A $250 penalty for that violation has been paid but the report had not been filed as of the hearing date.

The Commission voted to impose a $1,000 penalty for the current violation, but suspend $500, if the missing reports are filed and current penalty paid within 30 days.

Enforcement stats

As of September 13, PDC staff had 61 active cases based on complaints from the public and 98 cases based on complaints filed by PDC staff.

Between August 16 and September 14, PDC staff closed 4 cases based on complaints from the public and 53 cases based on complaints filed by PDC staff. The lower-than-usual number of case closures is partially due to the departure of a staff compliance officer and reassignment of those cases to remaining staff.

Next regular meeting: Oct. 27, 2022