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As Calls for Online Ads Regulation Mount, Maryland Takes the Lead

While Congress is grabbing headlines for the Zuckerberg hearings, states have been quietly leading the way in modernizing our election laws for the digital age.

  • Natalie Giotta
April 17, 2018

We know that internet advertising is a problem for federal elections: Look no further than Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress last week. Yet while Congress is grabbing headlines for the political theater of marathon hearings with a celebrity witness, it has done nothing to address the problem through lawmaking. The states, on the other hand, have been quietly leading the way in modernizing our election advertising laws for the digital age.

In a huge victory for voters, Maryland recently passed a bill to align online election advertising requirements with similar, decades-old requirements for broadcast ads. The General Assembly voted to pass several innovative disclosure requirements. Among the most important of these is the requirement that groups disclose their purchases of online ads endorsing a particular candidate or a position on a ballot question. This closes a loophole that third-party organizations – including “dark money” groups and Russia-linked operatives – have used to get around disclosing the true amounts they’re spending in American elections.

The bill also mandates an online one-stop shop for Marylanders wishing to know who is spending in their elections. It requires that information about the election advertising expenditures – such as who is spending, and the amount they spent for online ads – be available on the internet in a searchable format for public use.

What’s more, the new requirements will capture ads that are microtargeted and therefore seen by very few users: Any communication that reaches 500 or more people in the state will be subject to disclosure. While lawmakers on Capitol Hill are still scratching their heads about Facebook’s business model , Maryland understands that effective advertising can target very few users. This is a huge step forward in modernizing our election laws for the web-based age.

The Brennan Center testified in support of this new law, and the General Assembly accepted several of our recommendations for strengthening the regulation of online ads. Unequivocally, the Governor should sign the bill.

Maryland isn’t the only the state to step in where Congress hasn’t stepped up. California, Washington, and New York all have laws on the books that require disclosure of online political ad spending. And a bill is currently working its way through the Vermont legislature.

Of course, there is still work to be done. Congress has yet to pass the Honest Ads Act, a bill that would protect elections and voters from the influence of dark money on the web. The gaping hole in our federal election law is hard to ignore. There’s hope on the horizon in Congress and at the FEC, but there’s plenty to be done in the meantime.

More states should work to turn the tide towards modernizing our election spending laws. They can now look to Maryland and other innovators, as well as the latest thinking from the Brennan Center, as they begin to do so. The crucial infrastructure, thinking, and data to prove a good policy are all there. At every level of government, we have the tools to ensure the integrity of our elections. All we need now is for our leaders to take action.