In the weeks before the 2016 election, memes proliferated on Twitter bearing instructions on how to vote by phone or text message. The images were stylized to resemble Hillary Clinton’s campaign materials, and targeted her supporters in both English and Spanish. “Save time. Avoid the line. Vote from home,” they read. But no state allows either method for casting a ballot. It’s unclear who crafted this low-budget bid at voter suppression. Far-right Twitter accounts helped spread them in an apparent attempt to reduce Clinton voters’ actual participation on Election Day. Similar ads on Facebook that falsely told voters they could vote by tweet were later found to be part of a Russian influence campaign that sought to damage Clinton’s candidacy. While their efficacy is uncertain, the ads and memes fit within a broader pattern of spreading false and misleading information to confuse and deter voters.
Democratic lawmakers unveiled a bill on Thursday that would criminalize misleading tactics like these, as well as similar ones that have cropped up in state elections in recent years. If enacted into law, the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Act would give federal prosecutors new tools to punish people who attempt to spread false election-related information. It would also be an interesting test of the Supreme Court’s willingness to allow lawmakers to regulate political speech on the campaign trail.
The bill is narrowly targeted at falsehoods designed to dissuade voters from participating in the electoral process. Its main provision would make it a crime to intentionally distribute false information about an election’s time and place, the qualifications to participate, any criminal penalties associated with voting, and “information regarding a voter’s registration status or eligibility” for at least 60 days before the election takes place. Those restrictions would also apply to false statements about endorsements a candidate has received.