Aiming to stem foreign interference in U.S. elections, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has voted to create rules to more tightly regulate online political ads.
The news represents a small but important step forward in protecting the integrity of American democracy. It comes amid increasing evidence of a sophisticated Russia-linked campaign to undermine confidence in last year’s presidential election and to sway it toward Donald Trump. Facebook has said that a troll farm linked with the Kremlin bought around 3,000 ads on the site, some referencing hot-button political issues like Back Lives Matter. Those ads weren’t required to indicate who paid for them.
In a 5-0 vote Thursday, the FEC agreed to instruct its lawyers to begin the process of revising the commission’s disclosure rules for online ads.
Democrats on the commission have been pushing since even before last year’s election to open a rule-making process on the issue, only to be blocked by their GOP colleagues, who tend to oppose new campaign finance regulations.
In backing Thursday’s move, the Republicans appeared to be bowing to pressure. Over 150,000 Americans last week filed public comments on the issue, the vast majority urging the FEC to stiffen the rules.
“Foreign interference in U.S. elections is inimical to our nation’s interests and democratic values,” the Republicans wrote in a memo released Wednesday announcing their support for the new rule-making. “The need to prevent such interference is an issue that transcends partisan politic s, and on which all Americans can agree.”
Still, the commission’s Republicans vowed to block any move to hold a public hearing on the issue until after a draft rule had been proposed.
“This is a first step and not a cure-all,” Stephen Spaulding, the chief of strategy and external affairs at Common Cause, and a former top FEC staffer, wrote on Twitter. “But it’s long overdue.”
Spaulding added that the news doesn’t remove the need to pass the Honest Ads Act — a bipartisan bill introduced last month that would make online political ads subject to the same disclosure requirements as TV and radio ads.
Senate leader Mitch McConnell has suggested he’s “skeptical” of that measure.