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Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar is sponsoring three AI-election bills that moved out of committee on Wednesday. Andrew Harnik/AP

Congress Wrestles With New Election Laws Tackling AI

Most agree artificial intelligence in elections is a problem. But nobody seems confident Congress can regulate the issue before November, and there’s no backup plan.

With the prospect of artificial intelligence affecting elections this fall, senators are desperate to get new laws in place addressing AI and elections now.

Nobody is entirely confident it’ll happen, and nobody seems to have a backup plan.

But the Senate is moving swiftly on AI-related election legislation. Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has three bills on the topic, each with at least one Republican co-sponsor, and all three bills were reported out of the Senate Rules Committee Wednesday after a markup.

One of the bills prohibits “materially deceptive” AI-generated media on candidates for federal office. Another mandates political advertisements using significant AI content explicitly disclose AI involvement. And a third bill requires the Election Assistance Commission to develop guidelines for elections administration that address the uses and risks of AI.

Klobuchar said the goal was to pass these measures in time to be in effect for elections this fall, “because this is when we’re going to see massive abuses.”

“This stuff we’ve already seen in places like New Hampshire is going to be child’s play compared to what will happen,” Klobuchar said.

Concern about AI is not exactly a partisan issue. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley told NOTUS that “the potential for disaster is relatively high” with AI and elections. He’s co-sponsoring one of the bills. “We’ll see videos, we’ll see audio, we’ll see other stuff that’s fake, and I think it’d be bad,” he said.

But with Congress struggling so mightily to pass anything, is new legislation addressing a new topic with loads of new interests really feasible?

“Congress moves everything so quickly,” Klobuchar sarcastically answered. “What do you mean?”

When NOTUS asked Sen. Mark Warner a similar question, the Virginia Democrat said he was hopeful Congress could get it done. He voted to move all three bills through the committee on Wednesday. As did Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla of California, who also said he was hopeful Congress could address AI-election issues.

Republicans like Hawley are just as optimistic. On Wednesday, he told NOTUS that he wanted “some commonsense legislation” like the bills before the Senate Rules Committee to become law, though there were a number of GOP no votes on Klobuchar’s measures, many by proxy, in the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday.

Still, Klobuchar didn’t take the opposition to mean her legislation is doomed.

“I get that. I expected that,” she said of the no votes. “But it doesn’t mean that there were not amendments, there was not voracious discussions.”

She added that she thought there was general “acknowledgment that we’re going to have to work out something on this for the federal election.”

But if senators are waiting for a different set of legislative answers, there doesn’t seem to be another option besides the Klobuchar bills. Asked about an alternative, Hawley said there really wasn’t a plan B. “Congress needs to put some commonsense guardrails in place, which this bill would do, but absent that, it’s the Wild West,” he said, referring to the bill that would prohibit “materially deceptive” AI-generated media.

Sen. Chris Coons, another co-sponsor of the Protect Elections From Deceptive AI Act with Hawley, pointed to the Federal Communications Commission’s rule making AI-generated robocall voices illegal as other options.

“Look, congressional legislation, particularly as regards federal elections, is the most powerful tool we have available,” the Delaware Democrat said.

Coons was perhaps the most optimistic that the AI-elections bills could get through Congress and onto the president’s desk, reminding NOTUS that “bills do still pass here on occasion.”

Nuha Dolby is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.