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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