Foreign Interference in US Elections: Laws
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed July 30, 2020
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There are various reasons why other nations may want to influence the outcome of a U.S. election; however, if successful, it hampers one of the defining aspects of a democratic republic: the concept of self-determination. As such, the U.S. has laws and regulations that seek to prevent foreign interference in American politics.
What Is Foreign Election Interference?
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, foreign election interference is "malign actions taken by foreign governments or actors designed to sow discord, manipulate public discourse, discredit the electoral system, bias the development of policy, or disrupt markets for the purpose of undermining the interests of the United States and its allies."
Foreign election interference takes many forms, but the goal is almost always the same: to influence an institution so that it moves in a direction that is more beneficial 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 of a particular regime
- Spreading misinformation on social media
- Funding of a particular political candidate
- Creating doubt in political institutions or processes
Protecting U.S. Elections from Foreign Interference
Democracy does not function properly if citizens do not trust the results of elections. In an effort to maintain the integrity of American elections, the U.S. government has introduced multiple laws —specifically the Election Security Act of 2019 — with the goal of improving election infrastructure and limiting foreign involvement in domestic political elections.
The Election Security Act
In May of 2019, three members of Congress introduced the Election Security Act. If passed, the Act would, among other things,
- Require states to use durable, recycled-paper ballots in all federal elections
- Provide states with grants to replace non-compliant voting systems, improve security, etc.
- Require electronic voting software to be tested for security
- Require that voting machines used in U.S. elections be made in the U.S.
The intent of the Act is to increase election security, to prevent foreign interference in U.S. elections, and to increase voter confidence in election results. Similarly, the U.S. Code attempts to achieve something similar in regard to election contributions.
Election Contributions and Donations
According to the U.S. Code, foreign nationals are not legally allowed to contribute, or donate, or promise to donate money or anything of value to an 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 vaguer and has been subject to different legal interpretations.
According to the Federal Election Commission — the governmental body responsible for the regulation and supervision of federal campaigns — candidates and political action committees (PACs) are prohibited from accepting or soliciting contributions or donations from foreign nationals.
It is worth noting that foreign nationals are prohibited from contributing and donating directly or indirectly to a U.S. candidate or their campaign. Candidates, campaigns, parties, and committees are also prohibited from accepting contributions or donations from an entity if the candidate or their campaign has reason to believe the contribution or donation originated from a foreign entity.
Navigating Federal Election Law
Federal election law can be complex and difficult to navigate. Additionally, violations of federal election law can result in significant consequences. If an individual has questions regarding the legality of a particular donation or contribution, it is recommended they seek out the advice and assistance of a legal professional to experience in the realm of federal election law.