PHOENIX — State senators voted Wednesday to spend $500,000 to investigate the practices of social media platforms and search engines to see if they are violating campaign finance laws.
The provision, inserted at the last minute into the state budget, is part of a proposal by Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, to enact what he said are reforms to state election laws and provide more security for elections.
For example, Senate Bill 1819 requires new security features on ballots, like holograms, hidden numbers visible only under ultraviolet and the use of thermochromic, tri-thermochromic, photochromic or optically variable inks. Borrelli said these are designed to prevent counterfeit ballots from being counted.
"Such countermeasures are used in protecting our currency,'' he said. "Shouldn't your ballot have the same protections?''
But during floor debate, Sen. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix, said this appears to be more about politics than security.
"It continues to solidify the conspiracy theories that continue to exist across Arizona and, quite frankly, across the country,'' he said.
Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, questioned whether Borrelli — or any of the other Republicans supporting the plan — has any idea what they are proposing.
"I would really love for one of the members of the other caucus to get up and explain to me what thermochromic, tri-thermochromic, photochromic or optically variable inks are," he said.
"But we all know damn well you don't know what any of that stuff is,'' Quezada said. "And all it is is a perpetuation, again, of a big lie. These are big, scary words, trying to scare voters into thinking something bad is happening with our ballots."
In essence, thermochromic inks change color with heat. They are sometimes used on checks: Pressing them with a thumb causes a color change.
Photochromic inks change color when exposed to sunlight or ultraviolet light. And optically variable inks display different colors depending on the angle of view.
Quezada said a problem with Borrelli's plan is that some of what he wants on ballots is available from only one vendor.
Borrelli's amendment also sets aside $12 million for an Election Integrity Fund, with the money available for things like cybersecurity measures and reimbursement to counties for post-election hand tabulations, including additional staffing.
Task force fund
But the most unusual provision is the $500,000 for a newly created Unreported In-Kind Political Contributions Task Force Fund.
The task force would be specifically charged with investigating whether and to what extent the practices of social media platforms and internet search engines effectively become in-kind political contributions to a candidate, meaning the donation not of cash but of a service with financial value.
That drew questions from Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe. "Am I going to have to start reporting retweets as in-kind contributions?'' he asked.
Borrelli said what he wants ferreted out is more specific.
"There are social media platforms that have been very biased towards one particular party over another,'' he said.
For example, Borrelli said, the algorithms used by search engines to determine results when someone asks a question can be altered so that certain subjects show up first. And he said some politicians have lost followers.
"These are the kinds of things that need to be investigated and make sure that it's fair,'' Borrelli said.
Conservative politicians have long contended that sites like Twitter and Facebook have a liberal bias. Those claims were amplified when several sites banned former President Donald Trump after they said he violated their policies by inciting people to violence, particularly ahead of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Other states have taken different approaches.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last month signed legislation that would impose fines of $250,000 a day on any social media company that removes a candidate for statewide office from its platform.
Borrelli's proposal has no such specific language. But it would allow the task force to investigate things like denying a candidate access to a social media platform.
Prosecutors could bring charges
More to the point, it opens the door for prosecutors to bring charges against these platforms by saying that actions that would help any candidate, whether by improved search engine results or blocking a foe from posting, effectively are political contributions.
That has potentially serious implications.
There are fines for failing to report contributions. And corporations are strictly forbidden from donating directly to candidates, though they can finance independent expenditures on their behalf as long as they are reported.
This isn't the only Arizona legislative effort this year to go after internet companies.
Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, proposed classifying any company that allows people to post items as a "publisher'' if the operator "exercises a level of control over the uploaded content for politically biased reasons.''
They are now classified as "platforms," a definition that generally protects them from lawsuits over what is posted.
His House Bill 2180 never got a hearing, however.