Broomfield — As political ads become more and more negative, they are also becoming more and more dishonest. An ad running in opposition to Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik, who represents Senate District 24 in Adams County, is just one example of ads that aim to influence elections through deception.
The ad, sponsored by the Independent Expenditure Committee (IEC) Coloradans for Fairness, claims Martinez Humenik, a Republican, gave herself a raise while refusing to give teachers a raise. Martinez Humenik is being challenged by Rep. Faith Winter, the House Democrat who led the #metoo movement at the capitol last session.
The ad fails to point out that the bill in question, Senate Bill 15-288, was passed in the House of Representatives on a 33-30-2 vote, with 25 of the votes coming from Democrats — including Winter, KC Becker, Joe Salazar, Crisanta Duran, Alex Garnet, Susan Lontain, Dan Pabon, Johnathan Singer, Jeni Arndt, and several others currently running for either re-election or a senate seat.
The commercial also fails to point out that the bill raised the salaries of many elected officials, including the governor, the secretary of state, county commissioners, and clerks and recorders, among others.
It was the first raise in about 20 years, and in the case of senators, it doesn’t become effective until 2019. So Martinez Humenik must be re-elected to benefit from her vote three years ago. Likewise, Winter will reap the benefit of her vote if she is wins election to SD 24.
The commercial also claims Martinez Humenik voted not to give teachers raises.
This claim is false in that state legislators don’t have the authorization to grant raises to teachers. Teacher salaries are handled exclusively through local school boards.
The ad cites House Bill 18-1322, which was the budget-setting bill known as the long bill, agreed upon by the Joint Budget Committee and both chambers’ leadership.
Again, both Martinez Humenik and Winter voted Yes. The long bill also raised K-12 spending by nearly 7 percent and increased per-pupil funding.
Although candidates are not allowed to coordinate with groups like Coloradans for Fairness, Martinez Humenik has sent a letter to constituents in her district condemning any negative or false mailers being sent by any Political Action Committees (PAC) or IECs in support of Martinez Humenik’s campaign.
Winter, however, has not come out against the deceptive propaganda supporting her campaign, and she has not responded to several requests for comment from Complete Colorado.
Martinez Humenik said outside influences on elections is making it harder and harder for voters to determine truth from lies.
“The spin that folks put on stuff, is very interesting,” Martinez Humenik said. “I do have a good track record, and I do represent the district well. To twist these things to get people to believe things is wrong. But this is what happens in races that are important.”
However, Martinez Humenik said, she isn’t aware of much that could be legislated to change it. There are free speech guarantees that would make it hard to control outside organizations from supporting candidates and issues.
Matt Arnold, director of Campaign Integrity Watchdog, said there are laws in place to protect voters against deception in political advertising. Colorado Revised Statute 1-13-109 makes it a class one misdemeanor to lie in political advertising.
“I tell people all the time, it is actually illegal in Colorado to lie,” Arnold said. “It is a criminal violation when there is intent to influence an election with statements made with reckless disregard for the truth.”
Arnold said someone who lives in SD 24 should file a criminal complaint with the District Attorney and every police department inside the district. But he warned the complaint needs to have documented proof.
“It cannot just be rhetorical hyperbole,” he said. “There is a free speech issue.”
He added complaints should also be made to the media outlet running the ad and point out a legal complaint has been filed.
Justin Sasso, President and CEO of the Colorado Broadcasters Association, said federal law prohibits broadcasters from denying a campaign ad paid for by a qualified candidate for federal office, but they can deny an ad by a candidate for state or local office.
“But once the station sells a commercial spot to one qualified candidate, they must give equal time to opposing candidates for the same office, even if it’s for local or state elections,” Justin Sasso said. “In neither case is the station allowed to edit or censor content in the candidate’s ad. However, in return, the station is shielded from claims of libel, defamation, fraud or inaccurate, false or inappropriate content in the ad.”
Justin Sasso also said that broadcasters do have to use caution when streaming over the internet and accepting third-party political action committee or issue campaign messages not funded directly by a qualified candidate because that is not protected.
“If a candidate feels that an opposing message contains false information, they can request that the broadcasters stop airing the message,” Justin Sasso said. “Broadcasters perform their due diligence by requesting supporting materials, for the claims in question, from the purchasing organization. Once those materials are received and reviewed, the broadcaster has performed their due diligence and has the ability to make a judgement call as to whether the message in question is legitimate or false. Unfortunately, this places the broadcaster in the difficult situation of making a judgement call based on purposefully limited and biased information provided by opposing political camps.”
Damon Sasso, owner of 1310 KFKA radio in Greeley, said it’s nearly impossible for his station employees to weed out the truth from the false.
“It puts an incredible burden on broadcasters who may not be qualified to determine if ads are factual in nature,” Damon Sasso said. “For KFKA, we simply don’t have the resources to fund an investigative team to determine the accuracy of an ad. The same can be said for non-political advertisers. If a car dealership is advertising the best service in town, is it the broadcaster’s responsibility to verify that claim?”
Martinez Humenik said it’s hard to watch the commercials when she knows the information is a lie, but she’s also frustrated by the system in general because people are tired of people knocking on their doors, getting dozens of mailers and being inundated with phone calls.
“I’ve been getting notes from people telling me not to listen to it, just to stay on point,” she said. “So that’s positive, but I’ve never seen anything like it. This is a 365-day-a-year job. I put a lot of time and effort into it because I believe in it.