OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee Thursday called on Washington state lawmakers to pass legislation making it a gross misdemeanor for some to spread lies about election results and warned of an ongoing danger to the nation’s democratic system.
During a legislative preview event, the governor spoke forcefully against what he called “a continuing coup” by former President Donald Trump and those who have embraced conspiracy theories about unfounded election fraud.
Trump, Inslee said, “is still intent on continuing this coup effort.”
“And we have to realize, unfortunately, it’s not just in other states; it is right here in Washington state, this ongoing effort,” the governor added.
Thursday’s event — which also included panels of state lawmakers — fell on the one-year anniversary of both the Capitol insurrection in Washington, D.C., and a protest in Olympia during which demonstrators breached the gate of the governor’s residence and chanted slogans on the lawn.
On Thursday, Republican House and Senate leaders also denounced the violence and ransacking at the Capitol building and the protest that day in Olympia.
“Political violence, regardless of the motivation, is wrong,” said Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia.
“It was wrong when we saw it in the summer of 2020 in Seattle, it was wrong when we saw it in Olympia, it was wrong when we saw it in D.C.,” Braun added, referring to protests in Seattle in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
On Thursday, Inslee spoke at length about the insurrection and his experience in Olympia last Jan. 6, when demonstrators protesting election results appeared at the governor’s residence. He was forced to leave and wear a protective vest that day.
The governor also cited three Republican state lawmakers who used taxpayer dollars last summer to attend a symposium on election fraud that trafficked in debunked conspiracy theories. Held by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, the event in South Dakota revealed no evidence of fraud in the November 2020 election, and even some of the experts Lindell had invited said the hacking data that he discussed was nonsensical.
Some Republicans have also embraced election-fraud conspiracies when Inslee in 2020 defeated GOP candidate Loren Culp.
After that election, Culp filed a lawsuit alleging fraud against then-Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a fellow Republican. That lawsuit was withdrawn after Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced he would seek legal sanctions for making meritless claims in a court of law.
Culp has since announced a bid for U.S. Congress against Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside.
In the wake of the events of the past year, Inslee announced Thursday he will support legislation that would make lies about election results by elected officials or candidates for office a gross misdemeanor. In Washington, a gross misdemeanor can bring confinement in county jail for as long as 364 days and a fine of as much as $5,000.
“It should not be legal in the state of Washington for elected officials or candidates for office to willfully lie about these election results,” Inslee said. The legislation is still being drafted and talks are underway with potential bill sponsors, he added. The 60-day legislative session begins Monday.
In an interview Thursday afternoon, the governor said that for the gross misdemeanor to kick in, there would have to be “knowledge that there’s potential to create violence.”
For that reason, Inslee said he believes it’s constitutional and won’t run afoul of prior court rulings.
It’s not clear whether such a proposal would indeed pass constitutional muster, as the Washington State Supreme Court has in the past rejected efforts to ban lies by political candidates.
In a 2007 decision, a majority of the court struck down a law barring candidates from deliberately making false statements about their opponents, ruling it violated the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. The 5-4 decision was regarding a case of a candidate who was fined $1,000 by the state Public Disclosure Commission for false claims about a state senator the candidate was challenging.
Calling the law a “censorious scheme,” then-Justice James Johnson, writing for the majority, wrote “The notion that the government, rather than the people, may be the final arbiter of truth in political debate is fundamentally at odds with the First Amendment.”
In a dissent, Justice Barbara Madsen called the majority decision “an invitation to lie with impunity.” She added that it would benefit “those who would turn political campaigns into contests of the best stratagems of lies and deceit, to the end that honest discourse and honest candidates are lost in the maelstrom.”
In a separate statement Thursday, Inslee cited that ruling, saying his forthcoming bill is different. The ruling, he said, addresses false statements made by one candidate about another, while “this legislation is not about what candidates say about each other.”
State Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, criticized the proposal.
“You combat bad speech with better speech, not criminal sanctions. Threatening to jail people for political speech is as dangerous to our democracy as questioning election results,” he wrote on Twitter.
In a text message, House Republican Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, wrote that, “criminalizing speech seems counterproductive.”