OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday he wants to make it a crime to spread lies about election results.
Inslee said he’s drafting a bill to make it a gross misdemeanor for elected officials and candidates to hurl unsubstantiated claims that sow doubt in the integrity of elections.
The three-term Democratic governor is taking aim at those who continue to assert the 2020 presidential election was stolen and who push debunked theories about widespread fraud. They are part of what he called “a continuing coup” on our democracy.
Inslee unveiled his legislative proposal — for which he is still seeking a sponsor — on the one-year anniversary of both the Capitol insurrection in Washington, D.C., and a protest during which demonstrators breached the gate of the governor’s residence in Olympia.
Perpetuating the belief that the election was stolen is like “yelling fire in a crowded theater of democracy,” he said.
Inslee said he believes the proposed law is constitutional and won’t run afoul of prior state Supreme Court rulings because it will target speech that can provoke or promote violence.
“When people believe an election was stolen, what do you think will happen? Violence,” he said. “The threat to our democracy is just as dangerous on Jan. 6, 2022, as it was a year ago.”
Former President Donald 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,” Inslee said at The Associated Press Legislative Preview.
Inslee cited three Republican state lawmakers who used taxpayer dollars to attend a symposium on election fraud last summer that trafficked in unproven conspiracy theories.
What happened a year ago is just a warning of what is coming, and the basis of it is “The Big Lie,” he said.
Republicans criticized the proposal.
“He wants to write a law criminalizing free speech?” said Doug Roulstone, Snohomish County Republican Party chairman and a retired Naval officer. “He is a citizen. He happens to be governor. He’s free to do whatever he wants and it will be up to the courts to decide if what he’s doing is legal.”
Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, took to Twitter to question the approach.
“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.
In Washington, the penalty for a gross misdemeanor is up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Inslee said the legislation is still being drafted.
In a narrow 5-4 decision in 2007, the state Supreme 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. That ruling came in 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.
Material from the Associated Press is included in this report.