Iowa campaign organizer may request attribution of political texts

The Iowa Board of Ethics and Campaign Disclosure may soon clarify whether state laws regarding attribution data apply to some types of political texting, Zach Goodrich, executive director of the board, told Bleeding Heartland.

Goodrich plans to draft an advisory asserting when text messages are “general public political electronic advertisements” subject to Iowa law requiring disclosure of who is responsible for the campaign’s rapid advocacy.

Inquiry inspired by the Kansas texts

The day before the Kansans voted on a state constitutional amendment regarding abortion, thousands of text messages sought to mislead voters about their choices. As Katie Bernard reported to the Kansas City Star, the texts asserted that “women in Kansas lose their choice in reproductive rights. A yes vote on the amendment gives women a choice. A yes vote to protect women’s health.”

In fact, a “yes” vote would have enabled the Kansas legislature to ban abortion. Winning a “no” led to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that found that the state constitution protects abortion rights.

The transcripts did not reveal who paid for the false communications. Isaac Stanley Baker of The Washington Post traced the letters to the Political Action Committee led by a former Republican member of the US House of Representatives.

“Attribution of funds paid for text messages is required for candidates but not ballot issues,” Kansas State Ethics Committee Executive Director Mark Skoglund told The Star.

I asked for comment from Goodrich: Is it permissible under Iowa law for texts that do not specify any campaign committee or organization to urge voters to support or reject a statewide ballot initiative?

He clarified via email on August 3 that the Iowa Code section of attribution data requires disclosure of who paid for the message “on material that explicitly advocates for candidates and ballot issues. Unlike in Kansas, our laws and administrative rules do not contain different attribution standards for campaign issues.” Voting in exchange for candidates campaigning for an elected office.

This passage reads in part,

Published material designed to explicitly advocate the nomination, election, or defeat of a candidate for public office or the passage or defeat of a ballot case on the Published Material must include a statement of attribution disclosing who is responsible for the posted material.

Texts not expressly covered by the Iowa Code

However, Goodrich noted that “it is not clear in Iowa Code Section 68A.405 that text messages should have attribution data on them.” He did not find “any official guidance from our agency” addressing this issue.

The closest approximation was an advisory opinion from the Iowa Ethics Board and Campaign Disclosure in 2016, which established a “bright line rule when an attribution statement on an email message is required.” (The board had already decided in 2000 and asserted in 2006 that emails could be considered “any other form of printed public political propaganda,” which the code includes under its definition of “published material.”)

Goodrich said he was surprised the board didn’t affect the text messages. “An advisory opinion will be drafted to apply the same standards to text messages that a 2016 opinion generated for emails.” This opinion requires attribution data on “any email that meets all of the following criteria”:

  1. The email includes an explicit invitation;
  2. The email is sent to 100 or more email addresses; And the
  3. The email is sent by the nominee, nominee committee, PAC, state or county legal political committee, or someone making an independent spending that costs more than $1,000 in total.

The draft will be ready for the six board members to consider at their next meeting, which has yet to be scheduled but is likely to occur in September.

Several Iowa political texts already reveal the source of the call, such as the two texts pictured here, raising money for Governor Kim Reynolds’ campaign.

However, the agency that enforces Iowa campaign disclosure laws may want to leave no ambiguity about whether attribution is mandatory for text messages that support or oppose the ballot case. Iowans will vote on a controversial gun-related constitutional amendment in November and can vote on an abortion-related constitutional amendment as soon as next year, if Republicans maintain control of both state legislatures.

There is no possibility to ban misleading political texts

Bleeding Heartland also asked Goodrich if anything in Iowa law prohibits misleading texts such as the last-minute attack in Kansas, which lied to voters about what it means to vote “yes.”

Goodrich replied, “If there is a ban on sending misleading/false text messages like what was sent to Kansans, it’s not in Iowa Code Chapter 68A or 68B,” regulations that the Ethics Board enforces.

Likewise, Iowa Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Lynn Hicks was not aware of any provision of code that would address this unethical campaign practice. He explained that “political discourse is widely protected and if there is nothing to do with the sale of goods or services, it is difficult for consumer law to apply.”

The US Supreme Court has concluded that false political speech is protected by the First Amendment. Alex Bayoko explained that the FTC’s regulations on fraudulent commercial advertising “do not apply to political advertising.”

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