Election security at risk: 5 loopholes that allow foreign interference in our elections

Issue One’s latest report, “5 Loopholes That Allow Foreign Interference in Our Elections,” reveals how our broken political system allows China, Iran, Russia, and other foreign adversaries to interfere in U.S. elections. 

From hacking our election systems to spreading disinformation campaigns online to using unregistered lobbyists, foreign actors are using more subversive tactics to attack our elections than ever before.

“The country is facing a national security crisis. Our leaders need to do what’s right and act quickly. With every week of inaction, Congress is doing Russia’s bidding. It’s time to pass the bipartisan legislation supported by our ‘Don’t Mess With US’ project,” said Issue One Founder and CEO Nick Penniman.

Issue One’s new report highlights five key loopholes that leave the United States vulnerable to foreign interference — and the bipartisan, “Don’t Mess With US” project-endorsed solutions to fix them:

  1. Foreigners continue to hack our election systems. During the last presidential election, foreign hackers attempted to access election systems in all 50 states, and warnings from intelligence officials “did not provide enough information or go to the right people.” Today, Republican and Democratic secretaries of state continue to plead for more help bolstering their election infrastructure, and the Secure Elections Act and the DETER Act would do just that. 
  2. Foreigners can purchase digital ads to influence elections. Foreign actors are using hidden disinformation campaigns on the largest social media platforms to divide Americans. Social media companies have begun to police activity on their platforms and remove accounts tied to foreign influence operations. In the summer of 2018, Facebook, Google, and Twitter also voluntarily developed databases of political ads on their platforms to boost transparency. But these databases are plagued with problems, do not capture every ad, and do not detail the same information — meaning the companies’ voluntary efforts are nowhere near enough to stop foreign disinformation. The Honest Ads Act would apply the same decades-old rules that govern paid television and radio advertisements to paid, online ads across the largest digital platforms.
  3. Foreigners can pump money into political action committees through opaque groups. Current disclosure laws are too weak to know if foreigners are violating federal law by giving to politically active groups. Foreigners may be contributing to dark money groups, which are not required to disclose their donors and can use up to half of their funds for political purposes. They may also be using limited liability companies (LLCs) to contribute to political groups such as super PACs, which can accept unlimited amounts of money. We know that foreigners have done this before. The Justice Department recently charged Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho for allegedly funneling about $2 million in 2012 to LLCs affiliated with rapper Pras Michel of the Fugees, who, in turn, allegedly funneled those funds, sometimes with the help of straw donors, to both a super PAC and a joint fundraising committee that supported the re-election of President Barack Obama. The Shell Company Abuse Act would ensure foreign actors could not hide behind our tax laws while they subvert U.S. elections.
  4. Foreigners can direct U.S. subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies to contribute to candidates and political committees. U.S.-based subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies are supposed to ensure that no foreign nationals participate in the decision-making process when deciding if they want to engage in politics. But that law is not always followed, and it’s rarely enforced. A recent investigation by the Federal Election Commission — which came on the heels of an August 2016 report by the Intercept and complaint from the Campaign Legal Center — found that the Chinese board chairman of a California-based, Chinese-owned investment holding company illegally authorized the company’s $1.3 million in contributions to Right to Rise USA, a super PAC that supported Republican Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. A stronger Federal Election Commission would ensure rule-breakers like this are always held accountable. 
  5. Foreigners can hire unregistered lobbyists to work on their behalf. In the 1930s, Congress began requiring lobbyists representing foreign clients to file reports under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). After years of lax enforcement of this law, a few high-profile cases have been brought against individuals for violating FARA, including Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. The Foreign Agents Disclosure and Registration Enhancement Act would update FARA to close glaring loopholes and strengthen enforcement.

“Those that wish to attack America and threaten the integrity of our democratic elections must be deterred and countered. We ignore their offensive cyber weapons and influence operations at great peril. Much more needs to be done in a bipartisan and unified manner by the president and the Congressional leadership,” said Issue One ReFormers Caucus Co-chair Amb. Tim Roemer (D-IN), who previously served as the U.S. ambassador to India, a member of the 9/11 Commission, and a member of the House of Representatives.

“Combatting foreign influence in U.S. elections should be a priority for Republicans and Democrats alike. Now is the time for commonsense, bipartisan legislation that protects the integrity of our political system,” added Issue One ReFormers Caucus Co-chair Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN), who previously served as the ranking Republican member on the military construction, veterans affairs, and related agencies subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.

Read more in “5 Loopholes That Allow Foreign Interference in Our Elections.” 

Don’t Mess with US, a project of Issue One, is working to stop foreign interference in our elections. Issue One unites Republicans, Democrats, and independents in the movement to fix our broken political system. Learn more at www.dontmesswithus.org