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Foreign Election Interference: Securing America’s Future

By Alexandra Perona

The 2016 presidential election. For some it was a pleasant surprise. For others, it was a nightmare. Recently, following the closing of the Mueller Report, it was concluded that the Russian government targeted state and voter registration databases, managing to accessing systems in thirty-nine states. This operation was done through covert means, mainly through “targeted and misleading advertisements on social media platforms.” It was determined that there was more funding spent on political advertisements in 2016 compared to 2012. The Senate Intelligence Committee released a report regarding Russia’s interference during the 2016 election. The intelligence committee held hearings, interviews, and conducted review of intelligence from  2017 to 2019 regarding Russian attempts to infiltrate the “2016 election infrastructure.” The committee made some of the following findings: the Russian government directed activity to attack the U.S. election infrastructure starting as early as 2014, “probe” for vulnerabilities in the voting systems”, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI “alerted states of cyber attack threats.”

The reason why Russia was able to interfere in the 2016 election is due to loopholes in campaign finance law. Under current federal law, foreign governments are prohibited from being involved in US elections. However, foreign money can be legally spent under FEC regulations. First, it is legal to buy campaign advertisements that do not “expressly advocate or call for the defeat of a candidate.” So long as the advertisement is shown prior to 60 days for a general election and 30 days prior to a primary election, it is legal.

Because of this type of loophole, there is great concern that what occurred in 2016 could happen in 2020. There have been attempts to amend current finance law as a result. Currently, another bill has been introduced, The PAID Act, or the “Preventing Adversaries Internationally from Disbursing Advertising Dollars Act” sponsored by Senator Amy Klobuchar and Representative John Sarbanes, seeking to close loopholes that were available in 2016. The PAID Act hopes to enable the American people to “ protect the integrity of American democracy by expanding the scope of the prohibition on political advertising by foreign principals to uphold the well-established standard of the U.S. Supreme Court that foreign nationals may lawfully be excluded from participating in certain electoral activities.” The Act aims to expand and amend the limitations of foreign nationals under the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971.

Recently, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, solicited the Ukrainian government to reopen an investigation into Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. Allegedly, Giuliani told Ukrainian investigators that the investigation should continue because the information would be “very helpful to Trump.” Although shocking, current law permits Giuliani’s actions. Under 52 USC § 30121, an individual can only be punished for soliciting a foreign government for a “thing of value” to influence a campaign, when it is a knowing and willful violation and when the value of the thing is known. The PAID Act would also combat this loophole by making it illegal for anyone to “solicit any disbursement from a foreign government for the purposes of influencing a U.S. election. 

Unless reform is passed, it is quite possible that actions that Russia took in 2016 may be repeated in the 2020 election.

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