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One GOP sponsor is breath of life for online political ad regulation

Lindsey Graham is giving a slim but firm reed to those hoping at least one democracy reform priority gets through Congress before the next election.

Like a singular crocus in a field of snow, the South Carolinian is standing out this week after agreeing to become the first Senate Republican to sponsor the Honest Ads Act, the shorthand name for legislation that would boost disclosure requirements for campaign advertising online.

Proponents of the bill are hoping support from someone who's become one of President Trump's most vocal congressional allies will herald the start of a steady build-up of GOP endorsements in the Senate.

It will take at least a dozen more Republicans coming aboard to guarantee the bill could break a filibuster led by their own leader, Mitch McConnell, who is steadfastly opposed to almost all ideas for regulating campaign spending. Even additional sunshine requirements, he says, will stifle the right to free political speech.

The measure would compel the social media behemoths with at least 50 million visitors to disclose the pricing, target audience and identity of the advertisers behind political ads worth more than $500 placed on their platforms. The aim is to help prevent a repeat of one of Russia's most successful infiltrations of the 2016 campaign debate, by ensuring that paid political spots online are covered by the same federal regulations as the advertising on TV and radio.

Similar language is in the political overhaul package the House passed this spring. No Republicans voted for the multifaceted House bill dubbed HR 1, (which McConnell has vowed to bury in the Senate) but a handful have said they would support the Honest Ads Act on its own.

Facebook and Twitter endorsed the legislation last year, when they faced withering bipartisan criticism for their inability to confront their central role in the Russian campaign interreference efforts. The sole Senate GOP sponsor until his death was John McCain, whom Graham counted as his closest friend in public life. The prime Senate Democratic advocates are presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mark Warner of Virginia, who has his party's top seat on the Intelligence Committee.

"As we enter another presidential election cycle susceptible to foreign interference, Congress needs to put in place some commonsense guardrails to ensure that this never happens again, starting with the Honest Ads Act," Warner wrote in a recent USA Today op-ed.

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Open Government
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FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub

The struggle is real: FEC stalled on regulations for online political ads

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FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub revived debate on the topic in June when she introduced a proposal on how to regulate online political ads. In her proposal, she said the growing threat of misinformation meant that requiring transparency for political ads was "a small but necessary step."

Vice Chairman Matthew Petersen and Commissioner Caroline Hunter put forth their own proposal soon after Weintraub, but the commissioners have failed to find any middle ground. At Thursday's meeting, a decision on the agenda item was pushed off to a later date.

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