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Elections commission adds new disclosure requirements for political ads on air and in print

The Citizens Clean Elections Commission is moving to ensure the next time you see a political commercial you won't have to guess who really is paying for it.

More to the point, you won't have to squint or speed read.

Existing laws already say that political ads need a disclosure of who bought the airtime. Ditto newspaper ads, billboards and mailers.

But a new rule adopted this past week adds the requirement that those disclaimers actually spell out the three largest sources of funds that bought the commercial. Gone will be the ability to simply tell viewers that the ad they are watching was funding by a group identified only as something like "Arizonans for a Better Arizona."

More to the point, the rule details exactly how big the disclosure has to be and how long it needs to be visible.

Tom Collins, the commission's executive director, said the panel is not acting entirely on its own.

He pointed out that voters in November approved a ballot measure designed to unmask certain political organizations who, until now, had been given permission by state lawmakers to hide the true sources of their funds.

Several groups that do get involved in trying to influence elections that had not provided such disclosure were not happy with what voters enacted and have challenged the law.

So far, though, those have gone nowhere as a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled the measure was constitutional. And a separate challenge in federal court has yet to be heard.

All that leaves the commission with the power — and, more to the point, the duty — to craft the actual rule of what Arizonans will see and hear.

This is more than about disclosing those top three names. It's how that information gets to viewers, readers and listeners.

It starts with television, the biggest source of campaign advertising.

The new rule says that any broadcast ads require the names of the prime sponsors to be disclosed, both on the screen and spoken, at the beginning or end of each commercial.

Candidates and political groups can get around that oral revelation if the written list is displayed for at least one-sixth of the time the ad is being aired. That means at least five seconds for a 30-second commercial.

The rule also is designed to ensure that viewers will have a reasonable chance of reading that disclosure: It has to be at least 4% of the vertical picture height.

So, if you have a TV with a screen that is 20 inches high, the lettering will appear to be about eight-tenths of an inch.

Radio commercials are not exempt, with the sole requirement that the top donors be "clearly spoken at the beginning or end of the advertisement."

And anything delivered by hand or mail must have a "clearly readable" disclosure.

Then there's the issue of billboards. Here, too, the commission rules use a bit of math, with that same 4% standard.

Standard billboards are 14 feet high. That translates out to print about 7 inches in height.

And the rule even covers text messages and other social media posts.

Collins agreed it's not possible to put all the required disclosure, like the top three funders, into many of those posts, given the fixed limit on the number of characters.

But what is possible — and what the rule will mandate — is the inclusion of some clickable link that would take the reader to a page where people could get the required information. And Collins said that has to be a web site where the names of the top funders are immediately available, without readers having to first wade through other campaign rhetoric.

Collins acknowledged that, strictly speaking, posts on X — formerly Twitter — and Facebook pages do not cost anything unless they are sponsored ads. But he said that does not exempt them from disclosure because there is an underlying cost of preparing the messages.

But not everything promoting candidates and political causes will have to be labeled. Supporters will still be able to produce and give out bumper stickers, pins, buttons, pens and other small items without having to worry about where to find the space for disclosure.

Before adopting the rules, commissioners rejected a change sought by attorney Roy Herrera whose firm tends to represent Democrats and similar causes.

He argued that not everyone who gives to an organization wants to be associated with each of its communications or wants his or her funds used for that specific commercial. So he sought to limit the disclosure to only those whose funds actually were used for that specific advertisement or commercial.

But commission staffers said there is nothing in state law that allows for someone who is among the top three donors to a group funding a campaign measure to opt out of having his or her name disclosed solely because that person didn't finance that particular message.

Commissioners also rejected some suggestions by the Campaign Legal Center, a national nonprofit that gets involved in issues of campaign finance laws.

"The proposed standards leave potential ambiguity as to what would qualify as, for example, 'clearly readable' or 'clearly spoken,'" wrote Elizabeth Shimek, the organization's senior legal counsel. So she wanted the rules to state that a communication is not clear and conspicuous "if it is difficult to read or hear or if the placement is easily overlooked."

Commission staffers recommended against making that change, saying they were not aware of any abuses in the law which requires that standards be "reasonable."

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