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Facebook’s political ad ban sweeps up election officials

Social network’s ban targeting misinformation close to elections extends to election officials trying to reach voters.

A smartphone displays the Meta logo against lines of code projected in the background.

In this photo illustration, a Meta logo is displayed on a smartphone.

Avishek Das / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

A version of this post was originally distributed in Votebeat’s weekly newsletter. Sign up here

Facebook is at it again. 

I realize that’s not very specific. After all, the social network has been angering election officials over a lot of things for years. Specifically, though, the company (now called “Meta”) has decided it will again 1) include paid advertisements from elections offices in its definition of “political advertising” and 2) Ban all political advertising in the week before the midterms.

The upshot? That means — as it meant in 2020 — that election administrators cannot advertise voting policies or combat misinformation through paid advertisements in the week before the elections, stripping them of one of the most convenient and effective communication methods to voters. Facebook, after all, is a hub of misinformation about elections. 

The company has not — in the two years this policy has been operative — provided a fulsome explanation for why election ads should be considered inherently “political” or why they are unable to exempt state and local government offices from such bans. Meta representatives did not respond to a series of questions for this newsletter, either. 

Facebook has included elections offices within their definition of “political advertising” since 2018, but did not enact a full ban on political advertising until the week before the 2020 election. The company says the ban — which requires all such advertisements to be published before Nov. 1 — allows it to hold “ads about social issues, elections, or politics to a higher standard of authenticity and transparency.”

“As long as an ad serves an impression before the restriction period goes into effect (12:01 AM PT on November 1, 2022), candidates running for office (and others who want to run these types of ads and are authorized to do so), can share their closing arguments and mobilize voters with ads,” the company wrote in an emailed announcement on Aug. 16. 

The announcement angered election officials, who have been opposed to the policy since it was announced in 2018. Several have taken their objections to Facebook, but have said the company has provided no response or further information. The two largest associations for elections administrators — the National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors — have also voiced their disagreement with the policy to no avail. 

“Our office’s communications share nothing in common with political or advocacy campaigns, are not ‘political’ ads, and should not be thought of as ‘giving candidates a voice’ or ‘making a closing argument.’ We share factual information with voters about how they can participate in elections, and this restriction would prevent us from sharing information in the final week of the election that we didn’t know we had to share before the deadline,” Gabe Rosenberg, chief of staff and general counsel for Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, wrote in an email to Facebook government relations staff members shortly after the policy was reintroduced last month. 

“I am once again asking you to listen to state and local election administrators and rethink our inclusion in this policy, as it only harms our ability to communicate accurate and necessary election administration information to voters, an activity that we are all ostensibly partners in,” he wrote. 

Facebook certainly seems to have the ability to exempt government offices from such a ban. They’ve instituted similar exemptions before. The company, for example, exempted news organizations from a requirement that political speech be labeled after swift criticism of their move to label news as political speech. While elections offices have not gotten as loud as media types, they’ve consistently objected since the ban was enacted, and Facebook has provided no additional explanation. 

The company has now put out blog posts encouraging elections officials — alongside campaigns — to foster organic engagement on social media. While campaigns may have the expertise to throw at voter engagement — and likely pay people who specialize in such a thing lots of money for their talents — election offices have no such resources. Often run by a small handful of bureaucrats with no specific experience in social media, there are a host of reasons why such offices might pay Facebook to do this work for them rather than waste hours they need to prepare for running a smooth election. 

It leaves election officials fewer ways to reach voters when something unexpected happens right before an election. For example, in 2020, Tropical Storm Isaias caused more than a million households in Connecticut to lose power for four days before the primary that year. An executive order changed the state’s absentee ballot rules to accommodate that shock to the system, and social media became the most convenient way to communicate that change to thousands of voters still without power. Nine years before, a storm just before Halloween had a similar effect within a week of election day. 

Meta did not enact such a blackout ahead of primaries, allowing Connecticut to continue to advertise. It is not clear, nor has Facebook said, why they treat the general election differently than the primary, but the effect for voters is clear, says Rosenberg: “If something similar happens this November, this restriction will prevent our office from communicating with voters to inform them about how to participate in the election.”

Back Then

Who remembers MySpace? I’d like to draw your attention to this delightful news article from 2007.

“Having already launched a generation of Gwen Stefani clones and death-metal bands into fleeting Internet fame, MySpace — the largest social-networking site — is now setting its sights higher: to help elect the next president of the United States.” 

Yikes. If only we could have seen the future. 

Back then, the New York Times was waxing poetic on whether social media might be the next frontier in politics. “In tech language” the Times wrote, “such sites aspire to be the killer aps (sic) of this election cycle, reminiscent of what talk radio (particularly Rush Limbaugh) was in 1994, when it whipped up enthusiasm for the Republican landslide in the midterm elections, or what MoveOn.org was in 2004 when it emerged as a potent force to raise funds and drum up volunteers for the Democratic Party.”

The story ran in the paper’s fashion section. 

New From Votebeat

Aggrieved anti-fluoride activists, low pay, and understaffing eventually drove away Gillespie County’s election officials, reports Natalia Contreras for Votebeat Texas. Recent media coverage of the exodus attributed it to threats of the type that have become common since the 2020 presidential election. In fact, Votebeat’s review of court documents, emails, and social media postings show the elections administrator and others struggling to combat fringe election conspiracy theories in Gillespie County long before former President Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to question the integrity of the 2020 vote.

In Other Voting News

  • A voting rights proposal failed to make Michigan’s ballot after the Board of State Canvassers deadlocked along partisan lines, according to the Detroit Free Press. The group promoting the initiative filed an appeal with the state supreme court in an attempt to add the proposal to the November ballot. 
  • In a prime time speech from Philadelphia Thursday night, President Joe Biden called on Americans to stand against threats to democracy and said former President Donald Trump has stoked political violence, extremism and election denialism.
  • A Wisconsin man who ordered absentee ballots in others’ names in an attempt to prove it is possible to commit voter fraud has been charged with voter fraud, the Washington Post reports
  • Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported that conservative activist Ginni Thomas (the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas) had repeatedly emailed dozens of Arizona legislators asking them to substitute in their own electors after Trump lost the state. New emails show she did the same to at least two legislators in Wisconsin — including the chair of the Senate elections committee — around the same time. 
  • Trying to understand how ranked-choice voting worked in Alaska’s special election to replace the late U.S. Rep. Don Young? Alaska Public Media explains it for you
  • Connecticut Republicans sent a survey to hundreds of election officials around the state in what they said was an attempt to understand local procedures, but Democrats and watchdog groups are questioning whether the party is gathering information to boost claims of election fraud after the midterms. Local officials told the Middletown Press that the survey is asking questions about procedures set by state statutes, and answering it would consume time and resources necessary to prepare for the midterms. 
  • A Michigan sheriff under investigation sought warrants to seize more voting equipment than previously known, Reuters reported. Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf sought warrants in July, but the county prosecutor, a Republican, said she didn’t support them because the sheriff didn’t have sufficient evidence. 
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has publicly faulted local election officials for allowing some ineligible voters to cast ballots, but the head of election investigations for the state told the officials they were not at fault, Politico reported. The state has charged 20 people previously convicted of felonies with third-degree felonies related to voting violations, but at least some have said they believed their rights had been restored and they were entitled to cast ballots. 

Jessica Huseman is Votebeat’s editorial director and is based in Dallas. Contact Jessica at jhuseman@votebeat.org.

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