By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- State senators voted Wednesday to spend $500,000 to investigate the practices of social media platforms and search engines to see if they are violating campaign finance laws.
And that could lead to legal problems for them.
The provision, inserted at the last minute into the state budget, is part of a proposal by Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, to enact what he said are reforms to state election laws and provide more security for elections.
For example, SB 1819 requires new security features on ballots, like holograms, hidden numbers visible only under ultraviolet and the use of thermochromic, tri-thermochromic, photochromic or optically variable inks. Borrelli told Capitol Media Services these are designed to prevent counterfeit ballots from being counted.
"Such countermeasures are used in protecting our currency,'' he said. "Shouldn't your ballot have the same protections?''
But during floor debate, Sen. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix, said this appears to be more about politics than security.
"It continues to solidify the conspiracy theories that continue to exist across Arizona and, quite frankly, across the country,'' he said.
And Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, questioned whether Borrelli -- or any of the other Republicans supporting the plan -- actually has any idea of what they are proposing.
"I would really love for one of the members of the other caucus to get up and explain to me what thermochromic, tri-thermochromic, photochromic or optically variable inks are,'' he said.
"But we all know damn well you don't know what any of that is,'' Quezada continued. "All it is, again, is a perpetuation of a big lie, big, scary words, trying to scare voters into thinking something bad is happening with our ballots.''
In essence, thermochromic inks change color with heat. They are sometimes used on checks: Pressing them with a thumb causes a color change.
Photochromic inks change color when exposed to sunlight or ultraviolet light. And optically variable inks display different colors depending on the angle of view.
Quezada also said there's another problem with Borrelli's plan. He said that some of what he wants on ballots is available from only one vendor.
Borrelli's amendment also sets aside $12 million for an Election Integrity Fund, with the dollars available tor tings like cybersecurity measures and reimbursement to county for post-election hand tabulations including additional staffing.
But the most unusual provision is that $500,000 for a newly created Unreported In-Kind Political Contributions Task Force Fund.
It is specifically charged with investigating whether and to what extent the practices of social media platforms and internet search engines effectively become in-kind political contributions to a candidate, meaning the donation of not cash but some service with financial value. That drew questions from Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe.
"Am I going to have to start reporting retweets as in-kind contributions?'' he asked.
Borrelli said what he wants ferreted out is more specific.
"There are social media platforms that have been very biased towards one particular party over another,'' he said.
For example, Borrelli said, some politicians have lost followers. And he said that the algorithms used by search engines to determine results when someone asks a question can be altered so that certain subjects show up first.
"These are the kinds of things that need to be investigated and make sure that it's fair,'' Borrelli said.
Conservative politicians have long contended that sites like Twitter and Facebook have a liberal bias. Those fears were only amplified when several sites banned President Trump after they said he had violated their policies by inciting people to violence, particularly ahead of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol
Other states have taken different approaches.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last month signed legislation that would impose fines of $250,000 a day on any social media company that removes a candidate for statewide office from its platform.
Borrelli's proposal has no such specific language. But it allows the task force to investigate things like denying a candidate access to a social media platform.
More to the point, it opens the door for prosecutors to bringing charges against these platforms by saying that actions taken that would help any candidate, whether by improved search engine results or blocking a foe from posting, effectively are political contributions.
That has potentially serious implications.
There are fines for failing to report contributions. And corporations are strictly forbidden from donating directly to candidates, though they can finance independent expenditures on their behalf as long as they are reported.
This isn't the only legislative effort this year to go after internet companies.
Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, proposed classifying any company that allows people to post items to be classified as a "publisher'' if the operator "exercises a level of control over the uploaded content for politically biased reasons.''
What makes that important is they are now classified as "platforms.'' And that definition generally protects them from lawsuits over what is posted.
His HB 2180 never got a hearing.