Does NM Need a Campaign-Ad Truth Squad?


New Mexico’s two major dailies have been devoting a lot of attention to the advertisements funded by political action committees. The entire legislature is up for grabs on Election Day, and big bucks are being spent to determine which party will control which chamber.

But this sentence, in an article written by the Santa Fe New Mexican’s Andrew Oxford, caught the Foundation’s attention: “The state’s election watchdog does not have any authority over the content of campaign ads.”

In 2015, a legislator tried to do something about that. Senator Howie Morales sponsored SB 675, the “Truth in Political Advertising Act.” It appropriated $5 million to the attorney general to appoint “review agencies” — “public or private [entities] chosen by the office of the attorney general” — that would score every TV commercial, radio spot, and mailing for “truth or falsity” and the extent to which the communication was “misleading.” Scores would range from 1 (“untruth or false”) to 5 (“completely truthful”). Candidates and organizations not agreeing to scrutiny would be assessed a fine “of two times the cost of producing and distributing the advertisement,” and made to disclose that their ads have “not been submitted for a rating.” Refusal to include the disclaimer would induce “a fine of twenty times the cost of producing and distributing the advertisement.”

Rather curiously, SB 675 exempted judicial offices and legislative races. So if it had passed, this year, the review agencies would be scoring just the secretary of state, bail-reform, and GO-bond campaigns.

Fortunately for the cause of free speech, Morales’s bill didn’t get far. An analysis by legislative researchers raised the thorny issue of the attorney general’s office warning that “SB 675 may violate the First Amendment.” (No kidding.)

Few voters like negative campaigning, and the flood of often-nasty election ads appearing on screens and in mailboxes can get annoying. But the best way to sort out the charges and counter-charges is to let reporters, editorial pages, columnists, bloggers, and watchdog groups of varying perspectives and ideologies offer their analysis. A truth squad overseen by the attorney general is no way to help voters make up their minds.