2023 was a challenging test of New York’s elections. Voters endured persistent legal fights over redistricting and a congressional election scandal that captured national attention. It’s no surprise that trust in government continues to decline nationwide. With changing congressional boundaries and a contentious election season looming, voters face an even busier year.
The most obvious way to protect voters is to require more from the candidates seeking to represent them. Former U.S. Rep. George Santos, who lied about crucial parts of his background, swindled Long Island voters in 2022 into electing him to Congress. His extensive lies eventually caught up to him, but his election and year-long tenure in Congress exposed a glaring weakness in New York’s disclosure requirements.
Legislation proposed by Assemblymember Gina Sillitti and Sen. John Liu would require candidates to disclose more information about their background at the outset, under penalty of perjury and with fines for those who do not comply. The state would also be required to publish candidates’ information on the county’s Board of Elections website so voters can verify for themselves that candidates actually are who they claim to be.
Next, the Legislature must address the rise of artificial intelligence, which is already impacting our politics nationwide. “Deep fakes” — digitally altered content — allow campaigns to produce videos, images or audio that are explicitly intended to mislead viewers. Earlier this month, for example, supposed audio of Manhattan Democratic Chair Keith L.T. Wright slamming Assemblymember Inez Dickens went viral. Except it wasn’t him at all — the audio was AI-generated to sound like Wright, and it was sent to multiple news outlets before he clarified that someone faked his voice. A similar instance involving President Joe Biden made national headlines after AI-generated audio of him was used to deter New Hampshire voters from voting.
Failure to regulate the use of AI in our politics will not only shred any existing trust in our elections, but could inspire all sorts of unpredictable and dangerous responses from voters who fall victim to this kind of campaigning. Social media companies like Meta have agreed to label campaign ads that use artificial intelligence, but they are underprepared for the possibility of a mass, coordinated campaign to overwhelm voters with fake content in the leadup to November.
The Legislature has a duty to protect voters from deceptive campaign efforts specifically designed to misinform them. That’s why New York lawmakers should move quickly to pass legislation that requires clear, enforceable disclosures on all campaign materials that use altered content — and warns voters to be wary of what they are viewing.
A new bill supported by Assemblymember Amy Paulin and Sen. James Skoufis would allow nonpartisan monitors, who have no political motive, into polling locations to observe and report on any issues that might come up. The goal: to ensure that all voters have an equal opportunity to vote and have their vote count. With competitive elections all across the state, this common-sense legislation will boost confidence in both the integrity and transparency of our elections while ensuring a more seamless voting experience for all.
Voters need assurances. That requires new, modern laws. These bills will not eliminate deceptive campaign practices outright, but together they are a huge step towards safeguarding New Yorkers from new threats while respecting their right to make decisions.
Susan Lerner is the executive director of Common Cause/NY.