news track | Ethics board to demand attribution for political texts


The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board will require “paid for” attribution statements on some political text messages.


On the eve of a contentious vote on an abortion-rights ballot amendment, anonymous text messages landed on the phones of voters across Kansas in August.

The message seemed clear enough, stating: “Women in KS are losing their choice on reproductive rights. Voting YES on the amendment will give women a choice. Vote YES to protect women’s health.”

In fact, the opposite happened, with voters in the conservative state roundly rejecting the measure.

Under Kansas law, “paid” attribution is required in text messages for political messages advocating for or against candidates, but not for ballot issues.

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With Iowa voters likely to see a similar amendment on the ballot in 2024, the issue has raised questions about whether Iowa’s state laws on attribution statements apply to political texting, and whether residents Iowans could see similar messages appear on their cell phones, including this fall ahead of the Nov. 8 general election, in which a controversial pro-gun rights amendment will be on the ballot.

Unlike Kansas, the Iowa Code requires attribution statements and disclosures from who paid for messages expressly advocating for candidates and for ballot issues. However, Iowa Code section 68A does not clarify whether political text messages must have attribution statements.

Iowa law requires attribution statements in “print or electronic general public political advertising” that “expressly advocate” the election or defeat of one or more clearly identified candidates or the approval or defeat of one or more clearly identified ballot issues.

The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board determined in 2000, affirmed in 2006, and issued an updated advisory opinion in 2016 that the law’s “paid for” attribution statements extend to email messages.

Zach Goodrich, executive director of the board, said he would draft an advisory opinion clarifying that state laws on attribution statements apply to some types of political text messages.

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Members of the state ethics board, which enforces Iowa’s campaign rules, unanimously adopted the advisory opinion on political texting at a Sept. 22 meeting. The new guidance is effective immediately.

The guide requires attribution statements in any text message that meets all of the following criteria:

• The text message includes “express advocacy”.

• Email is sent to 100 or more email addresses.

• The email is sent by a candidate, a committee of candidates, a PAC, a state or county statutory political committee, or an individual making an independent expenditure that exceeds $1,000 in total.

Posts without an attribution statement would be treated like any other complaint filed with the board, Goodrich said. If found to have violated the law, the candidates, their committees, PACs and political parties could be subject to a civil penalty of up to $2,000, he said.

Goodrich pointed out that many Iowa political text messages already reveal the source of the promotion, mostly texts to raise money for a particular campaign, without using the “paid for” language.

Texts that praise a candidate or raise money for a campaign, without encouraging the recipient to vote for that candidate, will not require a “paid” attribution statement.

Additionally, Goodrich noted that Iowa is a “magic word” state where, to be considered “express defense” subject to disclosure, it requires the use of explicit words that tell people how to vote. Merely criticizing someone does not rise to the level of express defense.

So mentioning a candidate’s good faith and position on an issue and saying, “vote for the candidate who is best for Iowa’s economy” or “vote for a candidate who would cut taxes,” would not cut the mustard, he said. Goodrich.

“It has to be clearer than that to meet the express defense,” he said.


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