November 7th, 2006

Accuracy in politics.

There's been an awful lot of mud flying the last few days. Not all attack ads are bad, though. Some are irrelevant or personal, and while i'd like to get rid of those there's not much that can be done about them. It's the misleading ads that are a real problem. As campaigning has gotten dirtier and dirtier, candidates have started spreading distortions and outright lies about themselves and their opponents.

The folks at say laws against false political ads won't work. They cite three reasons: (a) the First Amendment protects free speech; (b) by the time a court rules, the election is already over; and (c) it's hard to prove that someone knowingly lied, since they could just claim they made a mistake.

I know the idea of getting politicians to tell the truth may sound a bit outlandish. But suspend your pessimism for just a moment — even it it isn't possible to stop them from ever lying, it would help a lot just to encourage them to say more things that are true. And even though truth is a tricky thing to nail down, we do have existing mechanisms for encouraging truth in advertising and truth in the courtroom, and they work to some extent. Not perfectly, but they do generally encourage people to tell the truth — people understand that lying in court has serious consequences, and advertisers generally find ways to persuade you instead of just lying, so they must feel at least somewhat bound by the law. If we could bring the level of dishonesty in political ads down to match other ads, that alone would be an improvement.

Okay, so how about this: instead of forcing politicians to tell the truth, which we can't do, what if there were a way for politicians to voluntarily raise the stakes on themselves? They'd say something like "I swear by this statement of fact: the NAACP received over 200 complaints of voter intimidation and misinformation in Ohio, yet Kenneth Blackwell did not start investigations into these allegations, in violation of his legal duty as Secretary of State." The effect would be something similar to testifying under penalty of perjury: the speaker voluntarily assumes the risk of going to jail if the statement is found to be false.

There's no free speech problem with this scheme, because invoking the legal liability is voluntary. But there would be motivation to do so: one could say, "Notice how i have made sworn statements. Honesty and accuracy are important enough that i'm willing to legally stand behind my claims. Why has my opponent not made any sworn statements in his campaign?" Maybe it would one day get to the point where one would have to make sworn statements on a regular basis in order to be seriously considered.

The second problem with accountability for campaign ads — the delay in prosecuting false statements — might be less of a problem if the stakes were high enough. The possibility of being thrown out of office and maybe even into jail might make a candidate think twice about lying in a sworn statement.

And as for the third problem — how to determine intent — i care more about accuracy than honesty. Forget intent. The candidate isn't being cross-examined here; candidates are free to choose what they want to say in a sworn statement, so it should be their responsibility to do the research and only make sworn statements that actually convey true facts.

Perhaps the risks seem too high for someone to want to volunteer sworn statements. Even so, these statements might be effective in countering misleading ads. If your opponent says something deceptive about you, you'd be able to set the record straight with a sworn statement in an ad or on your website. (Instead of an endless argument where one person must be lying but you can't tell which, the buck would stop somewhere: "Oh yeah? Prove it. Put me in jail.")

One variation of the scheme is to make the statements first and be vulnerable to challenges later. Another variation would be to have statements verified before you're allowed to prefix them with an announcement like "This statement of fact has been verified by (organization)." This would require the establishment of some sort of fact-checking organization, though. You'd pre-register statements with the organization before making them in a campaign, and the organization would maintain an online registry of statements with their supporting explanations and evidence.

I'm sure there are problems and specifics i haven't thought of; this is a pretty roughly formed idea. I welcome your feedback on it. Just keep in mind that we already have perjury laws and laws against deceptive advertising, so it's not guaranteed to be a lost cause. Can we, together, find some version of this basic idea that would work? Or just any idea that would make it politically advantageous for candidates to make accurate statements?