Foreign Interference in US Elections: Laws

Amid the growing concerns over election interference, understanding the procedural safeguards in place is essential to ensure the integrity of election results.

The U.S. established regulations on election administration to thwart attempts against the U.S. electoral system, ensuring the protection of voting rights. This article offers an insight into the nature of foreign interference and its potential impact on U.S. elections. It highlights the importance of protecting the integrity of election offices.

What Is Foreign Election Interference?

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) defines foreign election interference as harmful actions by foreign governments or agents. The act aims to weaken the interests of the United States and its allies by:

  • Sabotaging the credibility of the electoral system
  • Influencing policy development
  • Creating discord
  • Altering public discourse or
  • Disrupting the markets

Foreign election interference takes many forms, but the goal is almost always the same. It is to influence an institution to move in a more beneficial direction for the influencer. Foreign election interference can be overt or covert, which is part of the reason it is so difficult to prevent. Some examples of foreign election interference include:

  • Overthrowing a particular regime
  • Spreading misinformation on social media
  • Funding a specific political candidate
  • Creating doubt in political institutions or processes

Is Election Interference a Federal Crime in America?

Election interference can constitute a federal crime. The Federal Bureau of Investigation placed it under the Election Crimes and Security category. In general, an election crime is a federal crime if:

  • The ballot contains one or more federal candidates. This indicates the potential impact on the federal election outcome.
  • An election or polling place election official abuses their position.
  • The act involves false voter registration, sabotaging the integrity of the electoral process.
  • The crime intentionally targets minority-protected classes, violating their rights.
  • The action violates federal campaign finance laws.

These criteria emphasize the gravity of how the federal government looks at election interference.

What Is the Difference between Foreign Interference and Domestic Interference?

Foreign and domestic interference are two distinct concepts in politics and international relations.

Foreign interference is the actions of a foreign country against another. The foreign country intends to manipulate or influence the domestic matters of the other country. The foreign country also aims to advance its interests at the expense of the targeted country. One notable example of foreign interference was during the 2016 election. Here, Russian government agents hacked the email accounts of Democratic campaign officials. The emails were then published before the 2016 presidential election in an attempt to affect the election results. Other examples of foreign interference are:

  • Attacks on cybersecurity
  • Disinformation campaigns
  • Covert operations
  • Attempts to sway election results

Meanwhile, domestic interference happens locally within the country. It involves acts committed by internal or local actors to disrupt or influence the election process. The intent may vary. It can either be to undermine opposing political parties or candidates, gain power, or shape the public's opinion. Some examples of domestic interference include:

  • Lobbying
  • Spreading propaganda
  • Illicit campaign contributions
  • Manipulating social media platforms

Foreign interference often involves actors outside the country that meddle with local affairs. Domestic interference is when local actors act to influence their own country's political affairs. Both of these acts can affect the integrity of general elections.

Protecting U.S. Elections from Foreign Interference

Democracy does not function properly if citizens do not trust the results of elections. The U.S. government has introduced many laws to maintain the integrity of American elections. This includes the following U.S. laws:

Executive Order 13848

The Executive Order intends to deal with the unusual threat to the foreign policy and national security of the United States. In particular, the danger of foreign interference or sabotaging public confidence in the U.S. elections.

The White House acknowledged how foreign powers historically attempted to exploit the U.S. political system. Also, the increase in internet-based communications and digital devices has created significant vulnerabilities in recent years.

The national emergency declared by the president on Sept. 12, 2018, continues to take effect beyond Sept. 12, 2023.

Prevention of Foreign Interference with Elections Act of 2019

The act aimed to create new criminal penalties. It also attempted to change prohibitions related to foreign interference. Specifically, it sought to establish:

  • New criminal offense for conspiring with foreign entities to interfere with U.S. elections
  • Enhanced penalties for conspiring with foreign agents to interfere with U.S. elections
  • Inadmissibility of foreign nationals who took part in election interference

The DHS could waive the inadmissibility of foreign nationals guilty of election interference. But, to be eligible for the waiver, foreign nationals would have to undergo an adjustment of status to help with criminal prosecutions.

The Election Security Act

In May 2019, three members of Congress introduced the Election Security Act. The act intended to improve election infrastructure security. It also aimed to limit foreign involvement in domestic political polls. The act would have:

  • Forced states to use durable, recycled paper ballots in all federal elections
  • Give states grants to replace non-compliant voting systems, improve security, etc.
  • Demand electronic voting equipment get tested for security
  • Mandate post-election audit to guarantee the accuracy of election results
  • Improve election transparency. The act mandated disclosure of foreign management or ownership of election service providers.
  • Demand that voting machines used in U.S. elections get made in the U.S.

The act intended to increase election security and prevent foreign interference in U.S. elections. It also aimed to boost voter confidence in election results.

Election Contributions and Donations

According to the U.S. Code, foreign nationals are not allowed to contribute, donate, or promise to donate money or anything of value to elections. This applies to any American political candidate or a party's political committee. Although the value of money is almost universally recognized, the value of "other thing[s]" is vague. It also has been subject to different legal interpretations.

The Federal Election Commission handles regulation and supervision of federal campaigns. The Commission bans candidates and political action committees (PACs) from accepting or soliciting contributions or donations from foreign nationals.

Candidates, campaigns, parties, and committees also can't accept contributions or donations from a foreign entity.

Navigating Federal Election Law

The election system can be complex and challenging to navigate. Also, federal and state laws may affect the conduct of local elections. If you have questions about the legality of a particular donation or contribution, seek the advice of election campaign and political lawyers.

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