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12 Kansas lawmakers plan to close text messaging 'loophole' for ballot initiatives

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Posted at 3:19 PM, Aug 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-05 15:43:01-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Twelve Kansas lawmakers say they will work to close a loophole in state law that does not require campaign text messages for ballot initiatives to disclose who sent them.

Their comments to the KSHB 41 I-Team come on the heels of a misleading text message sent to Kansas voters Monday about Amendment 2. The message, which did not disclose who sent it, said: “Women in KS are losing their choice on reproductive rights," the text message reads. "Voting YES will give women a choice. Vote YES to protect women's health. Stop2end."

“I definitely think we need to change the law and I will pursue this when I return to the Legislature,” Rep. Cindy Neighbor (D - Shawnee) told the I-Team. “We need to make sure the information people are dispersing is honest and correct. And it needs to be clear who the campaign messages are from. That’s only fair.”

After the messages surfaced Monday, the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission said state law does not require text messages advocating for ballot initiatives to include a disclaimer on who sent them.

On Tuesday, the I-Team reached out to 44 Kansas representatives and senators -- from the Kansas City area west to Lawrence – and asked if that law should change. A dozen lawmakers – including Democrats and Republicans -- responded to our inquiries. They all agreed campaign text messages should be transparent and disclose who is behind them.

“I will introduce a bill that will make this change,” Rep. Stephanie Clayton (D - Overland Park), told the I-Team. “It’s past time that this update was made.”

Clayton’s colleagues echoed her sentiments.

"I believe that ANYONE weighing in using mass-media—whether on TV, radio, social media, or via mail, email, or text on a matter that will be on a ballot should be subject to the same requirements to disclose their identity as those advocating for and against candidates,” Rep. Pat Proctor (R - Leavenworth) wrote in an e-mail to the I-Team. “It makes a mockery of the idea of a marketplace of ideas and the public square when one side in the debate can hide their identities.”

Rep. Dan Osman (D - Overland Park) said state campaign laws haven’t caught up with technology.

“The last time the laws requiring attribution for constitutional ballot advocacy was amended was in 2007,” he said. “That's well before the time when mass texting was even a concern. This situation has clearly showcased a loophole in the law that must get remedied. We put candidate information on texts to keep voters informed about who is delivering the message. That same requirement should be in place on ballot initiatives.”

According to The Washington Post, former Kansas Congressman Tim Huelskamp (R) and his Do Right PAC are behind the text messages about Amendment Two. That amendment, which would have stripped abortion rights protections from the state constitution and allowed lawmakers to approve strict abortion restrictions, failed by a landslide in Tuesday’s election.

The Washington Post said it traced the text messages to a tech company called Alliance Forge.

The I-Team reached out to Huelskamp and Alliance Forge for comment. Neither has responded to our inquiries.

KSHB 41, however, did confirm that a San Francisco company called Twilio, whose services were used to send the text messages to voters, suspended the account late Monday. “Based on this activity, we determined the account was in violation of our AUP (Acceptable Use Policy), specifically prohibiting the spread of disinformation,” company spokesman Cris Paden told the I-Team.

Lawmakers expressed anger about misleading information in Monday’s unsolicited text message and the confusion it created among voters.

"The string of lies is deeply concerning when Kansas voters just want the simple facts and truth,” Rep. Christina Haswood (D - Lawrence) said. “I think passing legislation to ensure campaign messaging is factual should be of priority and legislation I would support. I would also support legislation for disclaimers. Anytime we can provide more transparency for folks the better."

Representative Brandon Woodard (D - Lenexa) didn’t mince words about his concerns with Monday's text message or his calls for change.

The text messages lying to Democratic and pro-choice voters is only one more step in their pattern of repugnant behavior,” he told the I-Team. “While I am disappointed in the Kansas Ethics Commission’s interpretation of the law, I look forward to correcting the loophole. Voters should always know who paid for political messaging or text messages.”

The I-Team asked the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission if it objected to lawmakers' plan to close this loophole in state law.

“The statute that addresses paid-for attribution for ballot issues (K.S.A. 25-2407) is outside of the jurisdiction of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission,” executive director Mark Skoglund said. “However, we are supportive of efforts that would increase transparency in campaign finance, including this change.”

Change that Sen. Molly Baumgardner (R - Louisburg) said is now on lawmakers’ radars’ and will be addressed when they convene next January.

"I anticipate the Kansas legislature will deal with transparency issues such as this in the upcoming session,” she said.

Before then, there are highly competitive races in November.