ST. PETERSBURG –– Mayoral candidate Scott Wagman said Monday that he will challenge an elections complaint alleging he omitted the state's required disclaimer in online advertisements, a move that could affect other candidates who want to stump on the Internet.
His decision sets the stage for a battle that will receive close scrutiny from political consultants, academics, candidates and advertising experts across the country. At stake is candidates' use of popular new technologies such as Facebook, Twitter or Google AdWords, affordable or free mediums that allow political hopefuls to easily reach wide swaths of potential voters.
"It has implications for all candidates," said Chris Ingram, a Republican political consultant.
There are implications for Wagman, too; if he loses his challenge, he could face fines of $1,000 per violation.
Until recently, a link to Wagman's campaign site popped up anytime someone Googled the names of his rivals.
Florida elections law, written long before Twitter or Google, requires candidates to include a disclaimer on most advertisements noting that they were paid for by a political campaign. Federal campaign laws allow ads without a disclaimer.
But Google allows for only 70 characters in the body of its advertisements. That's not enough room to display the proper disclaimer.
Wagman notes that anyone who clicked on the link was directed to his site, which does include the required disclaimer.
"If this complaint is upheld, it just kills the ability for anyone to use Google links," said Wagman. "Where do most people go to learn about things? They go to Google. So when you restrict access to Google, you are restricting free speech. We think that's wrong."
Wagman, a first-time candidate, has focused much of his campaign outreach online, interacting with voters on Twitter, friending potential supporters on Facebook and handing out T-shirts with his Web addresses on them. But it was his campaign's decision to advertise on searches of his rivals' names that got him into hot water.
Peter Schorsch, former campaign manager for mayoral candidate Jamie Bennett, filed a complaint against Wagman in July.
The Florida Elections Commission advised Wagman that he could pay a small fine and end the case immediately without triggering an investigation.
Instead, Wagman said he will fight, a decision that puts him at risk for thousands of dollars in fines.
"When you say 'no contest,' everyone just assumes you are guilty," he said. "I didn't do anything wrong."
Political disclaimers are an essential component of transparent elections, proponents argue.
"The candidates need to abide by the law, and if right now the law does not use those methods of political communication, then they shouldn't use them," said Angela McMillen, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Political Consultants.
But many argue that Google ads have become a common tool in modern politicking.
Both sides in the state's heated battle over same-sex marriage last year used them. So did presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain.
Wagman could be the first candidate in the nation to be fined for using the ads, according to advertising and political experts interviewed by the Times.
His case has quickly become a must-watch battle among political operatives in Florida. If the Florida Elections Commission ultimately finds the complaint valid, Google ads and Twitter messages will be off-limits to candidates.
"What's happening is in the last … (two to four) years, there has been a radical, rapid change with technology," said Doug McAlarney, a Republican political consultant based in Tallahassee. "Stuff that you would only see in a presidential campaign or a well-funded Senate campaign now can be used by someone running for city council or mayor. It's become more affordable and more prevalent, and the state just needs to evolve with the change in technology."
Stephen C. Craig, chairman of the department of political science at the University of Florida, said Wagman has a strong case.
"There is a very strong current in campaign finance law and judicial ruling that favors more political speech rather than less political speech," he said. "There is just no way for him to be in compliance with the law. So what does that mean? Punish him or silence him? I'm guessing in the long run, they are not going to silence him."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.