Seeking to crack down on the spread of disinformation, Minnesota legislators and state election officials are proposing new penalties for people who intentionally spread false information intended to prevent someone from voting.
The proposal, nearing a vote as part of a broader DFL-led elections package, would carry a gross misdemeanor penalty and allow the attorney general and others to bring civil action against someone who violates the law within 60 days of an election.
"In America, everyone has a right to be wrong," said Secretary of State Steve Simon. "What you can't do … is intentionally, with the intent to impede someone's access to the polls, lie and say things that are not true. That is the cornerstone of the fight against disinformation."
The bill is part of a suite of proposals this session meant to combat false and manipulated information about state elections and candidates while adding new protections for election workers, who have borne the brunt of anger from voters as disinformation has spread.
"It's a crisis that is impacting people's confidence in the election, and a lot of it is rooted in the 'Big Lie' of 2020," said Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis, referring to the falsehood that the last presidential election was stolen. "When there is a lie about a stolen election, the culprit in this lie has become election workers, the men and women who do apolitical work to make our elections run."
Greenman, an election-rights lawyer who is carrying the proposal in the House, said the state needs stronger language in the law to penalize individuals who use social media or other platforms to spread falsehoods specifically intended to keep people from the polls.
Under the bill's language, that would include information "regarding the time, place, or manner of holding an election; the qualifications for or restrictions on voter eligibility at an election; and threats to physical safety associated with casting a ballot."
Civil action allows a quicker way to seek an injunction against someone to stop the behavior, but it's still a high bar, Greenman said. A judge would need to agree that the false information was spread knowingly and "would impede or prevent a reasonable person from exercising the right to vote."
"It's a line-drawing exercise," she said. "We're creating a clear line and a clear standard, and our current statute doesn't quite do that."
For example, someone posting on social media that an election was on Wednesday could face penalties under the bill if there's evidence they did so knowing that the false information could keep voters from showing up at the polls Tuesday, the actual election day. If there was evidence that the person posting that was simply misinformed, they wouldn't be penalized.
A different proposal with backing from members of both parties would carry similar penalties for someone who uses artificial intelligence to create manipulated videos, photos or audio 60 days before an election to hurt a candidate's credibility or otherwise influence voters.
So-called deepfake videos have yet to become a major problem in state or national elections, but experts have warned that the technology has developed rapidly in recent years. It's easy for anyone to create a realistic-looking video or audio of someone doing or saying things they never actually said or did.
"A picture is worth a thousand words. How does an average person defend themselves against a picture that might depict an action that never occurred?" said Sen. Eric Lucero, R-St. Michael, a co-sponsor of the deepfake bill who has carried bills in previous years raising broader concerns about digital misrepresentation.
"It's now becoming something as simple as something you can do on an app," said Lucero, who works in cybersecurity. "Because it's on the fingertips of many more people now, there are many more people who can become victims."
Greenman said other proposals this session aim to protect voters and election workers from intimidation that could stem from disinformation. Another bill she's carrying would make it a gross misdemeanor to obstruct election duties, intimidate election workers or disseminate their personal information.
"Before 2020 I didn't spend a lot of time thinking or talking about, how do we protect election workers from doxing?" Greenman said. "Those are new issues."
In Minnesota, a group of activists concerned about the 2020 election took their complaints to more than two dozen counties across the state, pushing local election officials to do away with ballot machines and count votes by hand in the midterm election.
David Maeda, director of elections in the Secretary of State's office, said that as soon as elections officials successfully managed to dispel one thread of disinformation, another would crop up. He's already heard of some poll workers who have said they don't want to continue in those roles.
"I encourage people at that level to get the message out that you are a human being running these elections," Maeda said. "Once people understand it's an actual human being doing things, it lessens some of the anger out there."
Simon said that protections should be put in place now, before the 2024 presidential campaign, when disinformation about state and national elections will be "very much in season."
"I think disinformation isn't just a problem," he said. "I think it's the number one problem facing our democracy in this country right now."