Capitol

The Capitol Building is seen Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Olympia.

OLYMPIA — A Pinterest-like page to track Washington state's election spending? Campaign-finance officials say it may be an idea whose time has arrived.

Election spending in Washington continues to break records, from last year's unsuccessful carbon-fee initiative, to an Eastside state Senate race in 2017.

Meanwhile, micro-targeted online advertising -- such as through Facebook and Google -- has made it possible for political campaigns to reach small slices of voters without the broader public being aware.

So on Wednesday, state campaign-finance officials discussed the idea of giving Washington's campaign-disclosure system a boost: building a searchable digital archive that collects campaign ads and information related to them.

At a Wednesday meeting of the Senate State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee, officials for the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) said a digital archive could shine sunlight on political ads bought through social-media companies like Google and Facebook. A searchable database could also help voters make sense of a dizzying amount of election messaging and the sources behind it.

"So that all Washingtonians can go and see what ads are in a race that's relevant to them, what the spending was like, who was targeted, who was reached by that ad," PDC Director Peter Lavallee told lawmakers Wednesday.

For now, a digital archive is just a broad idea, according to PDC officials, and Lavallee described it as a "heavy lift." They hope to study the issue in the coming year and possibly approach state lawmakers in the 2021 legislative session.

But if it happened, the proposal could put Washington at the forefront of expanding campaign disclosure in an era that has seen social media become increasingly dominant in politics, even as those ads remain extremely difficult to track.

A handful of other states are exploring the concept of such an archive, according to PDC officials, who have been in contact with one government actually using one. The New York City Campaign Finance Board, which oversees election disclosure for local races there, archives independent expenditure ads.

The archive is modeled on sites such as Pinterest and Instagram. Campaign ads pop up as visible posts while a user searches the archive, according to Matt Sollars, director of public relations for the board.

For instance, if you visit the archive and search for Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2017, the right side of the page displays images of campaign mailers from that race.

If you click on a campaign mailer, you can learn who sponsored the ad, how much it cost and the date it was distributed, among other details. People can search for political ads by office or year, or by type of advertisement, type of sponsor or dollar amount.

Under Washington's public-disclosure laws, much of that campaign-advertising information is public -- but it is sometimes fragmented and can be hard to find and piece together.

For instance, someone in Washington can go to a TV station to see what types of political ads have been purchased and how frequently they air, according to David Ammons, chairman of the PDC. Or someone can visit the PDC's website and find itemized spending lists, which usually give only broad details about a TV ad buy.

That's much easier in New York City's digital archives, where someone can find and watch a TV ad, and see the exact cost and distribution date.

In Washington, a digital archive could require ad buyers to submit to the PDC any online political ads appearing on social-media platforms, including Facebook and Google.

Those two companies said last year they would stop selling political ads in Washington after a lawsuit accused them of not following state public-disclosure laws.

But both companies have continued to sell some ads in Washington.

Facebook and Google have their own political advertising databases for people to search, but Ammons said those aren't always accurate.

A spokesperson for Facebook said Wednesday the company hasn't seen a proposal for a Washington digital archive. Messages to Google seeking comment Wednesday afternoon weren't returned.

After hearing PDC officials talk Wednesday, Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said she's "very interested in looking into this further."

Kuderer, vice chair of the Senate government committee, said the state needs a thoughtful approach to evolving technology and increased campaign spending, both of which she views as problems.

Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, said he's open to the idea of a digital archive -- but he's not sure it's needed and wants more details.

"I think we need to have a pretty full vetting of the idea before we add that to our plate," said Zeiger, ranking Republican on the committee.

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