June 8, 2020

Follow the Money: COVID-19, Foreign Interference in our Elections and How Businesses Help

By Sean Callahan

With COVID-19 at the front of all our minds, it may not feel like election season. But by the end of the year Americans will have elected 435 Representatives, 33 Senators, 11 State Governors and one President. The election is a pillar of democracy and sovereignty, but American elections are under threat from foreign interference. We’ve sustained one major attack in 2016 and have not built up our defenses since.

In 2016, Russian operatives directed by the highest officials in the Kremlin executed an influence campaign designed to stoke fear, inflame tensions, incite protests and increase partisanship. Their tactics leveraged social media, fake accounts, bad-faith political groups and paid advertising to reach an unsuspecting audience. It was a massive success.

Since then there has been plenty of bluster but no reckoning with the biggest loophole in our democracy – a shortcoming that leaves our elections open to foreign influence on a massive scale.

The Citizens United ruling. Dark money. Unlimited corporate spending to Super PACs and nonprofits that pursue narrow interests for the ultra wealthy special interests

If we think our foreign adversaries are not already taking advantage of these backchannels, we’re kidding ourselves.

The Citizens United Supreme Court ruling in 2010 prohibited the government from restricting corporate contributions to elections and campaigns on the grounds that such expenditures qualify as protected speech under the 1st Amendment. That means corporations have wide discretion to direct funds toward Super PACs and politically active nonprofits as they so choose.

Regular PACs route a limited amount of funding directly to campaigns and candidates. Super PACs can spend an unlimited amount on influencing elections but may not donate directly to nor coordinate with campaigns and candidates. Both are registered with the FEC and must publicly disclose the source of their funds. There is a limit to how much a corporation may donate to a regular PAC, but not a Super PAC. Any U.S. corporation can contribute as much as it wants to any Super PAC.

Then there are dark money nonprofits: an organization that spends money to influence elections but doesn’t disclose the donor or the source of the money. Tax-exempt social welfare groups, or 501(c)(4) nonprofits, are not required to disclose their donors. They can raise unlimited, undisclosed funds for independent expenditures – issue advocacy – or to be donated to a Super PAC. That Super PAC may disclose its dark money group as a donor, but the original source of the funds remains hidden. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, dark money groups have spent over $600 million on federal elections since 2010.

And that brings us back to foreign interference.

It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how to spend large sums of money on electioneering while hiding your identity. And if you’re not an American citizen, all you need is a U.S. corporation. As a foreign national, can you incorporate in the U.S.? Yes you can. Can your American corporation contribute as much as it wants to a nonprofit dark money organization? Yes it can, according to the Supreme Court. Can it do so discreetly? Certainly. And where does that money go? It supports whatever issue or Super PAC best furthers your goals.

There are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of unaccounted-for expenditures in American elections – expenditures that go toward candidate promotion, attack ads, issue advocacy, etc. This is how the super-the rich influence our elections, and those same levers are available to any foreign adversary.

It is possible that a future court could overturn the problematic Citizens United ruling. But let’s not leave this up to chance. Instead, let’s win a 28th amendment to our Constitution that tasks the states and legislature with limiting big money in politics, closing this loophole for good. Groups like American Promise are making this amendment a reality calling on business leaders to sign its Statement of Principle for Business Professionals, get involved and make an impact.

The current pandemic is a crisis that’s tasked us with taking control of our physical health. Big money and foreign interference in our elections is the crisis that demands action to secure our electoral health. We can be the group of Americans who lays the foundation for a stable, prosperous democracy going forward. But doing nothing might set us down a path we won’t soon be able to turn back from.

Sean Callahan, project marketing manager, with Masters in Global Studies at Northeastern University and Massachusetts American Promise Chapter Leader

This forum is for entrepreneurs and business organizations to voice their concerns about foreign and domestic interference in our nation’s elections.  We welcome submissions that make the business case for protecting our elections.  Please send your 600-800 word opinion pieces to protectelection@gmail.com.