Laws often lag behind reality, and the latest example is playing out in the St. Petersburg mayoral race. In a case that will be watched statewide, mayoral candidate Scott Wagman said Monday that he will fight a complaint to the Florida Elections Commission that alleges he violated state law because he did not have a disclaimer — "Political advertisement paid for ..." — on certain Internet advertisements. It is an issue ripe for review.
Such disclosure requirements are key to open, democratic elections. Voters need to know who is behind the message trying to sway their vote. But Wagman's foray into a new frontier of political speech on Facebook and Twitter does not undermine that goal. Rather, Florida's laws are stuck in 20th century technology and need some commonsense updating.
The advertisements in question are actually little boxes of text that try to tease readers to click through to Wagman's Web site, and they are not big enough to hold the disclaimer. Wagman only pays for the ads when someone clicks on them and goes to a page where there is a disclaimer.
It is a tactic used masterfully last fall by Barack Obama, the first candidate to really harness the power of social networking for political gain. He had no legal limits. Federal law does not require a disclaimer when it would be impractical (such as a too-small Web teaser ad). But Florida law dictates that state and local candidates must always use disclaimers except on items designed to be worn or novelty items worth less than $10.
Perhaps Wagman can argue that laptop computers and mobile devices are fashion accessories and therefore the teaser ads are mere campaign stickers. But the only real solution is for the Florida Legislature to update the disclaimer requirement and join the 21st century.