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FEC's jaw-dropping ruling gives foreign nationals approval to influence U.S. politics

A new report brought to light a July ruling by the commission that allows foreign donors to finance ballot initiatives, sparking backlash from some members of Congress.


A frightening Axios report from earlier this week brought to light a Federal Election Commission ruling from July that allows foreign nationals to finance U.S. ballot initiative campaigns.

The decision was unknown to many lawmakers and members of the public prior to the report, which was published Tuesday. In a 4-2 vote, the FEC ruled that foreign individuals, corporations and governments may fund committees that try to put local issues on the ballot. Because ballot measures aren’t technically elections, the law prohibiting foreign nationals from financing U.S. elections doesn’t apply, the FEC said.

FEC Chair Shana Broussard, a Democrat, voted with the panel’s three Republicans to dismiss a 2018 complaint about foreign money that was spent on a Montana ballot initiative, Axios and The Washington Post reported. Broussard has declined to comment before the public release of documents related to the case, which could come as early as Friday, according to the Post.

Photo Illustration: A voting booth sits on top of a pile of money.
Justine Goode / Getty

The ruling applies only to federal law, meaning states are still able to ban foreign spending for state-registered ballot initiatives — though some state leaders have refused to do so. Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, vetoed a bill in June that would have done just that.

“Entities with direct foreign investment employ thousands of Mainers,” Mills wrote at the time. “Legislation that could bar these entities from any form of participation in a referendum is offensive to the democratic process, which depends on a free and unfettered exchange of ideas, information, and opinion.”

Yeah, why cut off that spigot of sweet, sweet cash? Who cares about American elections independent from foreign meddling?

Enter: FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, who voted against dismissing the complaint. In a blistering statement last week, Weintraub said her FEC colleagues’ separation of ballot measures from local elections is a distinction without a difference. 

“When Americans go to the polls to vote on Election Day (or mark our mail-in ballots), the choices we make — whether as to candidates or referenda — are part of the same expression of democratic self-governance,” she wrote. 

In response to news of the FEC ruling, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said she’s introducing legislation to bar foreign spending on ballot initiatives, Axios reported Wednesday. But any reform measure is sure to face hurdles in a divided Congress. 

Democrats have introduced two voting rights bills that would bar foreign spending on ballot initiatives: the For the People Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. Republicans, as you now know, oppose both bills.

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