Congress making bipartisan push to stop foreign money in US ballot initiatives

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Lawmakers from both parties are working to stop foreign nationals from contributing to ballot initiative campaigns in the United States after a recent Federal Election Commission ruling exposed a major loophole in a decades-old ban.  

While the FEC decision specifically involved a case regarding money from Canada and Australia, members of Congress are worried about a potentially dangerous precedent.  

“This FEC decision is shortsighted and dangerous,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., when announcing Thursday that he is co-sponsoring legislation with two other Republicans and three Democrats to prohibit foreign contributions. “Opening the door for the Chinese Communist Party to influence our democratic process threatens both our elections and our national security.”


Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., speaks during the House Republicans’ press conference on the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in the Rayburn Room in the U.S. Capitol in August. The congressman blasted the FEC’s recent ruling dealing with foreign nationals contributing to ballot initiative campaigns. 
(Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The FEC voted 4-2 that ballot initiatives do not count as elections as defined by the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, which prohibits foreign nationals from contributing to candidates and committees for federal, state and local elections. 

The FEC ruling could impact future ballot initiatives, and soon, since 29 states have approved 61 statewide ballot measures for 2022, according to Ballotpedia. The topics span issues from property taxes to abortion, climate change policy and gun rights. 

House and Senate bills introduced this week would amend the 1971 campaign law to also prohibit foreign national contributions to state or local ballot initiatives or referendums. 

The FEC ruling stemmed from a dismissal of a complaint about a Canadian subsidiary of an Australian company that donated $270,000 toward a campaign to defeat a 2018 Montana ballot initiative. The FEC ruling was first reported this week by Axios.  

“Restoring faith in our democracy means ensuring that the American electorate—not foreign nationals—are empowered to affect change in this country,” said Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn. “It is absurd that foreign interference in our elections would even be in question, let alone affirmed by members of the Federal Election Commission. As our democracy faces threats from the inside and out, Congress must act urgently to close this dangerous loophole.” 

The other sponsors of the House legislation are Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., and Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., and Jared Golden, D-Maine.  

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., speaks during the Problem Solvers Caucus press conference in the Capitol in February 2020. Murphy is joining other members of Congress in sponsoring House legislation dealing with contributions from foreign nationals to election campaigns. 
(Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Axios reported the FEC Democratic Chairwoman Shana Broussard voted with the commission’s three Republicans to dismiss the complaint. 

The initial complaint to the FEC alleged Sandfire Resources America – the Canadian subsidiary of the Australian company Sandfire Resources – violated the law in donating money to defeat a 2018 Montana ballot initiative about restrictions on hard rock mining in the state.  

Sandfire donated $270,000 to the Montana Mining Association’s efforts opposing the ballot initiative. Sandfire also donated $17,857 to Stop 1-186, a state ballot issue committee, according to the FEC. Voters rejected the measure with 55.6% of the vote, as the opposition raised $5.5 million and supporters raised $2.1 million.  

“The [Federal Election Campaign] Act defines ‘election’ to mean ‘a general, special, primary, or runoff election’ as well as ‘a convention or caucus of a political party which has authority to nominate a candidate,’” the FEC decision says.  

The commission ruling continued, saying there is not sufficient evidence groups opposing the ballot initiative “were inextricably linked to any federal, state, or local candidate for election,” and concluded, “Under these circumstances and consistent with the relevant court and agency precedents construing the foreign national prohibition, the commission declines to further pursue this matter.”  

The House bill follows the Stop Foreign Interference in Ballot Measures Act introduced earlier this week by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y.  

“It is absolutely chilling that foreign nationals can fund ballot initiatives, giving them significant influence on our laws and democracy. This loophole is frankly dangerous and must be closed swiftly,” Gillibrand said.  


Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, speaks during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in May. The senator recently voiced his concerns over foreign nationals engaging "in America’s democratic process."
(Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., plans to introduce a separate but similar bill.  

“Foreign nationals should not be able to engage in America’s democratic process,” Rubio said. “It is illegal for foreign nationals to donate to political candidates, parties, and committees. I will soon introduce legislation to extend that commonsense protection of our political process to ballot initiatives and other referendums. We must do everything we can to protect the votes of American citizens.”  

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