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Senate Rules advances three AI election bills

Markup comes on heels of new bipartisan AI “road map”

“This is a hair in the fire moment, and here’s why — AI has the potential to turbocharge the spread of disinformation and deceive voters,” Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar said.
“This is a hair in the fire moment, and here’s why — AI has the potential to turbocharge the spread of disinformation and deceive voters,” Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar said. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and other Democrats put it in no uncertain terms Wednesday: Congress must act fast to ward off threats to U.S. elections posed by deceptive artificial intelligence.

“If we’re not careful, AI has the potential to jaundice or even totally discredit our election systems,” Schumer said at a Senate Rules and Administration Committee markup. “If deepfakes are everywhere and no one believes the results of the elections, woe is our democracy. This is so damn serious.”

His words came directly on the heels of the release of a new AI “road map,” drafted by Schumer and a bipartisan group of his Senate colleagues. The 31-page document calls for billions of dollars in investment into AI research and development and highlights policy priorities for committees to pursue.

Related: Schumer proposes $32 billion annual spending under AI road map

Along those lines, Senate Rules advanced three bills out of committee at Wednesday’s markup that would prohibit the distribution of deceptive AI in campaigns for federal office, require disclaimers when AI is used, and require the Election Assistance Commission to develop guidelines on the uses and risks of AI.

Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Rules panel, cited “chilling” examples of deceptive AI and deepfakes already deployed in recent years.

In 2023, the presidential campaign of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis circulated images purporting to show former President Donald Trump hugging former Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci. And during this year’s New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, a robocall went around to voters that sounded exactly like President Joe Biden telling voters to stay home.

“This is a hair in the fire moment, and here’s why — AI has the potential to turbocharge the spread of disinformation and deceive voters,” Klobuchar said. “Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, no one wants to see these fake ads or robocalls.”

Klobuchar is right that there is broad, bipartisan consensus on the risks of AI.

Schumer worked with Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Republican Sens. Todd Young of Indiana and Mike Rounds of South Dakota on the AI road map. And Klobuchar’s bill to protect against deceptive AI in elections was co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Josh Hawley of Missouri.

But in committee that bill, as well as legislation to increase the transparency of AI in political ads, faced opposition from GOP senators. Both advanced on party-line 9-2 votes.

“We have to balance the potential for innovation with the potential for deceptive or fraudulent use,” said Nebraska Republican Sen. Deb Fischer, the panel’s ranking member. “On top of that, we can’t lose sight of the important protections our Constitution provides for free speech in this country. These two bills do not strike that careful balance.”

Fischer said she, too, was concerned about the risk posed by AI. But she felt the bills were “over-inclusive.”

“They sweep in previously unregulated speech that goes beyond deepfakes,” according to Fischer. And they “federalize” an election issue that should fall under the jurisdiction of individual states, she said. “I support states in their efforts to regulate their own elections,” Fischer said.

Already states around the country have either enacted, or are considering, laws to regulate AI ahead of the 2024 elections. According to Klobuchar and Schumer, at least 14 already have something on the books, leaving the federal government behind. And a group of more than 40 national security experts and current and former state election officials called on the committee to advance the three bills, Klobuchar said.

“We are going to see this resurgence of fakery and scams going on in our elections. And whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, we cannot have our democracy undermined by ads, and by videos and by robocalls when you literally don’t know if it’s the candidate you love or the candidate you dislike,” Klobuchar said.

A third bill, which would instruct the Election Assistance Commission to develop voluntary guidelines to administer elections based on the risks and uses of AI, and to undertake studies of those risks and uses, was approved with unanimous, bipartisan support, 11-0.

“I believe it will benefit our country to learn how AI can help election workers solve the challenges they face as they work to ensure the security and integrity of our elections,” Fischer said.

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