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Q&A with Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver

Elections chief ramps up efforts to combat AI misinformation ahead of June 4 primary

News The Secretary of State Office May 1 launched a campaign related to potential risks associated with artificial intelligence used to manipulate election information by malicious actors. (Courtesy Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver)

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver this week announced a new $500,000 campaign focused on educating voters about the potential risks artificial intelligence poses for election misinformation.

The office launched efforts May 1 across various media channels in New Mexico, including social media, television stations, radio, billboards and print publications. Voters can also visit a webpage dedicated to information related to AI to view more resources, take an AI quiz and download one-page fliers that contain strategies for recognizing manipulated media they could encounter during the 2024 elections and beyond.

SFR spoke with Toulouse Oliver following the campaign launch to learn more. The following interview has been edited for style and clarity.

When did you become aware that AI electoral misinformation was something you wanted to address?

I would say the aha moment for me was about a year ago at this time. I was at a conference in Washington, DC with the Center for Election Innovation, which is a bipartisan group that works to modernize our election systems, and there was a panel on sort of the threats of AI-generated content. The secretary of state from Michigan, my colleague Jocelyn Benson, was talking about a bill that they had just passed to basically discourage or penalize the use of misinformation in AI related to elections—anything related to elections. After that, I think every single conference I went to—the next 10 conferences in a row—this has been a really big topic, and it became very clear that we need to do something about it here in our state as well.

Are these AI-generated advertisements something we have already seen in New Mexico, or is this more of a preventive measure?

I would say at this point it’s preventive. We’re trying to get ahead of the problem because we’re already starting to see it crop up in other places. So, for example, there was that now-infamous robo call that went out to New Hampshire Democratic voters before the primary there purporting to be President Biden saying, ‘Don’t bother going out to vote.’ Or, you know, Ron DeSantis when he was running for president put out some deceptive campaign advertisements that featured images and voices trying to be former President Trump that weren’t real and were AI-generated. So we can just foresee this becoming an issue. So often, we don’t have the opportunity to see something coming and have a chance to get in front of it; we’re always sort of being reactive and responsive. This time we decided this is something people need to be very aware about as we head into this election cycle.

The New Mexico Legislature passed a law that requires political campaigns and candidates to tell the public if they utilize false AI-generated information in an advertisement. Do you believe that in the future New Mexico should consider even stricter measures against deceptive AI use in elections?

I think that’s going to be a let’s-see question. I think going the route we went this year was an important route because the bottom line is that voters need information, and we know that disclosure is a core bipartisan principle, and we don’t run the risk of running afoul of the First Amendment when we apply a disclosure requirement. But we’re gonna have to see how it goes this cycle, right? If folks are following the disclosure rules and the public education campaign that we’re doing raises that awareness and voters have that discernment to use a critical eye, we will create a hostile environment toward intentionally using AI-generated content to provide misleading information to voters. If that works, I don’t know that we need to go any further. We’re going to have to see how the cycle evolves, though, because if we do end up having bigger problems, we may need to look at going that route and I may ask the Legislature to consider that.

You’re secretary of state at a very interesting time as far as election history. How should voters be thinking about election integrity, especially when it comes to AI-generated media that could potentially incite more skepticism?

I’m a person who gives voters a lot of credit. You know, we often hear people out there say, ‘Voters don’t really know what’s going on. Voters don’t know who they’re gonna vote for until the last minute. They are very susceptible to false advertising and things like that.’ I’m a big believer that voters actually really do know what they want, but also that there is just misinformation and disinformation out there. If voters have the tools they need to be able to make the decisions that are right for them, they’re going to do that. I would say, yes, voters may have fears and concerns just like we do as election administrators going into this election cycle about what are we going to get hammered with in terms of social media, in terms of ads, and mail and phone calls? We don’t really know and that’s the honest truth, but I think that the average voter is a discerning voter and can choose for themselves which information they want to take in, and especially if they have the tools and resources to know where to find accurate information, they are going to do that and trust that we as election administrators have their backs and are going to ensure that the process runs legally with integrity and accuracy.

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