Facebook has taken down political ads from a shadowy limited liability corporation, apparently based in Maine, that has been attacking U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and the state’s ranked-choice voting system.
Some advertising by the Maine Liberty Coalition violated Facebook’s policy against ads that “delegitimize any lawful method or process of voting or voting tabulation (including in-person voting on paper or on machines, absentee voting, vote by mail, and lawful collection of ballots) as illegal, inherently fraudulent or corrupt, or will result in a fraudulent or corrupt election administration or outcome,” said Facebook spokesman Tom Channick.
The 15-second and 30-second ads feature cartoon characters and short narratives that claim Maine’s ranked-choice voting system is unconstitutional.
“This election you will see unconstitutional ranked-choice voting on your ballot,” the narrator in one ad says. “One person. One vote. Is that really such a hard concept? Real patriots will not be part of the ranked-choice voting scam.”
Maine’s ranked-choice voting system has been the target of several state and federal lawsuits, but a federal judge has twice rejected arguments that the law violates the U.S. Constitution.
The ads represent the kind of anonymous, false and misinformation campaigns that have been used across social media platforms. Facebook has come under fire for not doing more to vet political advertising, but has become more aggressive in fact-checking posts and ads in recent weeks.
The company’s decision to remove some of the group’s ads is an example of how it is increasing scrutiny of political content leading up to the election. On Wednesday, Facebook announced it would ban all political advertising after the polls close on Nov. 3 for an indefinite period of time.
Political messaging on Twitter will also be more closely vetted. The company said Friday it would step up disclosures about disputed content and hide tweets with false claims by political figures and campaigns.
Other Facebook ads by the Maine Liberty Coalition remain live. These ads attack Collins, a Republican, for her opposition to President Trump and her position that voting on a new U.S. Supreme Court justice to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg should wait until after the November election.
One ad claims Collins “turns her back on Trump every chance she gets.” Another features an audio clip of Trump reacting to Collins’ announcement on replacing Ginsburg.
“I think Susan Collins is going to be hurt very badly, her people aren’t going to take this,” Trump says in the clip. The ad’s narrator says, “Susan Collins doesn’t believe our president should do his duty to fill an empty Supreme Court seat.”
Collins is running for her fifth Senate term against Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon and two independents, Lisa Savage, a Green Party activist, and Max Linn, a financial planner who has aligned himself with Trump and is running to Collins’ right.
Some of the ads feature images of Linn, but his campaign manager, Matt McDonald said Linn is not behind the advertising, McDonald said he complained about the ranked-choice voting ads to Facebook, which led to the ads being removed.
“Max does not condone these ads and is deeply opposed to dark money in politics,” McDonald said.
The coalition has spent more than $16,000 on the Facebook ads, some of which have been seen 80,000 to 90,000 times. Those numbers includes viewers who may have watched the ads more than once, however.
Annie Clark, a spokeswoman for Collins’ campaign, said the messaging appeared to be the work of Gideon’s campaign or its allies, but she offered no proof.
“Sara Gideon and her accomplices have spent the last two years making false statements to the Maine people,” Clark said.
But Maeve Coyle, communications director for Gideon’s campaign, said they are not involved in the advertising and do not know who is responsible for the ads.
“Senator Collins’ false attacks against Sara are a blatant attempt to distract from her own record of voting against campaign finance reform,” Coyle said.
Maine Liberty Coalition, which ran the ads, registered as a limited liability corporation with the Secretary of State’s Office on Aug. 23. But there are few details on who is behind the group.
Its registered agent is listed as attorney Lynne Houle, who works for the Portland-based law firm of Bernstein Shur. The registration paperwork was signed by Justin Gifford, who also appears to have worked for the firm.
Neither Houle nor Gifford responded to messages from a reporter.
Billing information provided to Facebook for the ads, including a website, mailing address and phone number, shed no additional light on who is backing the organization or paying its bills. Messages left on a Google voicemail account and sent via the organization’s website also went unreturned.
The organization’s mailing address is a box number at a UPS Store on Marginal Way in Portland. A banner photo on the group’s Facebook page shows a sign that welcomes visitors to Maine along Route 4 in South Berwick, near the Maine-New Hampshire border and next to the Links at Outlook golf course.
The group does not appear to have registered with either the Federal Elections Commission, which enforces federal campaign finance laws – or the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Campaign Practices, which regulates state campaign finance law.
Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the state’s ethics commission, said based on the organization’s activities it would not be required to register in Maine but may be required to register with Federal Elections Commission if it is trying to influence a federal election.
He said no one had complained to the state commission about the group’s activities.