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Limiting Foreign Meddling in U.S. Campaigns

The 2016 election exposed multiple vulnerabilities to foreign interference in our elections. There are key policy reforms that can help protect against the next attack on democracy by a hostile foreign government.

  • Brennan Center for Justice
August 14, 2019

Americans are concerned about the continuing threat of foreign interference in U.S. elections. Although Russia’s 2016 exploits have received much attention, intelligence agencies and national security experts warn that we are likely to face additional interference in our elections from a greater number of adversaries going forward. What can be done? There is no silver bullet. Tackling this problem requires a range of nuanced solutions that simultaneously preserve the integrity of U.S. elections, protect the constitutional rights of all Americans, and leave sufficient room for beneficial international exchanges. In this analysis, we detail a menu of key recommendations to combat illicit foreign meddling in U.S. campaigns. Together with measures to reinforce the security of our election infrastructure, we believe these reforms will go a long way towards reinforcing U.S. sovereignty in a manner consistent with bedrock American values.

Here is an overview of the reforms that should be implemented to limit foreign interference:

Campaign Finance Reforms

  • Shore up rules governing online political advertising by passing the Honest Ads Act. Paid advertisements were central to the disinformation campaign launched by Russia during the 2016 election. Many paid communications like these, designed to increase tensions over divisive issues and depress voter turnout, are not prohibited by U.S. law or subject to the even most basic transparency requirements. The Honest Ads Act would help address this problem by enhancing disclosure for political ads on online platforms.
  • End dark money. By way of “dark money”—spending by groups not required by federal law to disclose their donors—foreign sources, including governments, can fund campaigns without the public knowing. The DISCLOSE Act would eliminate this issue by requiring groups that engage in campaign spending to reveal the donors who financed that activity.
  • Improve advertisement disclaimers. In addition to the disclaimer provisions included in the Honest Ads Act, Congress should set clearer guidelines for “paid for” disclaimers in all advertisements. Disclaimers should be required to identify or link to information about the individuals responsible for funding the ad, such as the top five donors to a super PAC or 501(c)(4).
  • Restrict foreign corporations from spending money on U.S. campaigns. While foreign individuals and entities are prohibited from spending money on U.S. elections, current rules allow foreign companies to spend through U.S. subsidiaries, provided the company puts spending decisions in the nominal hands of a U.S. citizen employee. Congress should close this loophole by specifying that substantial foreign ownership or control of a company is an absolute bar to spending on U.S. campaigns.
  • Clarify and strengthen rules governing campaigns’ receipt of foreign intelligence and other things of value from foreign governments. The Mueller Report questioned whether intelligence offered by foreign governments falls under the definition of an in-kind contribution. Yet federal law defines campaign contributions to include any “thing of value” donated to influence a federal election. Congress should make absolutely clear that U.S. campaigns may not solicit or receive any donated benefit from a foreign government or political party, regardless of the benefit’s monetary value. Congress should also provide that any sharing of nonpublic campaign information with a foreign government or other foreign national will be deemed a solicitation of a prohibited contribution.
  • Allow national parties to pay for cybersecurity upgrades for candidates. Email hacks and leaks were key to Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections. Campaigns must have access to the latest cybersecurity technology going forward. If the government cannot cover the costs of these enhancements, then Congress should amend federal campaign finance rules to allow national party committees to pay for cybersecurity updates for their candidates without these payments counting towards otherwise applicable contribution and spending limits.
  • Fix the FEC. Many of the current vulnerabilities in the campaign finance system result from legal loopholes created by gridlock at the Federal Election Commission. No new laws passed by Congress will be effective if the agency charged with interpreting and enforcing them is chronically incapable of doing its job. The Brennan Center has proposed an overhaul to the agency that would be essential to protecting elections against foreign meddling.

Platform Transparency

  • Make platforms accountable for exposing deceptive foreign political influence operations and report on their efforts. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have already uncovered networks of fake accounts orchestrated by foreign governments and spreading propaganda through unpaid posts. We recommend policy makers explore whether platforms should be required to search for such content and publicly report what they find. Any requirement that burdens users’ speech should be undertaken using clear, publicly available criteria and accompanied by a robust appeal process.
  • Explore greater bot transparency and restrictions. Bots, or social media accounts posting automated content produced by computer programs, have been used to undermine elections. Posing as humans, these automated accounts can make certain messages or accounts appear more popular than they actually are. Policy makers should investigate ways to mitigate the deceptive power of bots, including disclaimer rules that require bots to be labeled as such.

Voting Reforms

  • Pass the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act. A key goal of Russian interference in the 2016 elections was to discourage people from voting, especially African Americans, by disseminating lies about how to vote. Congress urgently needs to make it a crime for any actor, foreign or domestic, to spread disinformation with the intent of suppressing the vote.
  • Restrict the use of voter data for ad targeting. Microtargeting in online advertising allows political operatives to say different things to different demographics, as the Russians did in 2016. Data from state election officials’ voter files can facilitate this form of deception. The use of voter file data should be restricted, including by disclosing to ad audiences when they are targeted based on data from a voter file.

Other Reforms

  • Modernize FARA. The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which imposes public registration and reporting requirements on agents of any foreign principle engaging in political and certain other activities in the United States, should be overhauled to enhance transparency and public accountability. Changes should include allowing for civil enforcement of FARA in cases that do not warrant criminal prosecution; allocating far more resources for both criminal and civil enforcement; and eliminating the registered lobbyist loophole.
  • Require more transparency from FARA-registered media entities. Foreign government-controlled media outlets registered under FARA should also be required to add disclaimers to their communications.
  • Require campaigns to report foreign government contacts. The Mueller Report details the number of times Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 presidential election by offering assistance to the Trump campaign, all of which remained hidden from both the public and law enforcement until after the election. Campaigns should be required to disclose all credible offers of assistance or collaboration from a foreign government or political party to the FEC and the FBI.
  • Provide a statutory mandate for addressing disinformation and coordinating federal efforts. Several federal agencies are simultaneously working to address foreign disinformation. Congress should consolidate and coordinate this work by assigning responsibility to address foreign disinformation directed at U.S. audiences to the Department of Homeland Security and clarify the roles of other involved agencies.
  • Promote media literacy and civic education. Americans of all ages need to be better educated regarding media literacy. Lessons should be incorporated in grade-school and post-secondary curricula, public service announcements, platforms’ user outreach, and media coverage.

To read the full Brennan Center agenda, click here.


The following Brennan Center experts are available for additional consultation:

Daniel I. Weiner, Senior Counsel, Democracy Program

Ian Vandewalker, Senior Counsel, Democracy Program

Spencer P. Boyer, Director, Washington Office

Lawrence Norden, Director, Election Reform Program, Democracy Program