By Amanda Zoch
Amidst the near daily developments in the ongoing Ukraine affair, you may have missed the part involving a potential campaign finance violation.
Two Soviet-born men were arrested on criminal charges related to their alleged attempt to funnel foreign money into the campaign coffers of U.S. politicians. While this particular incident concerns federal elections, states also have a stake in regulating foreign contributions.
Campaign finance regulations can be confusing, but the FEC remains clear on this issue: “Federal law prohibits contributions, donations, expenditures and disbursements solicited, directed, received or made directly or indirectly by or from foreign nationals in connection with any election—federal, state or local.” (See also 52 USC 30121.) Per federal regulations, no candidate, political party, or political action committee at any level of government can accept any form of foreign contribution.
You may wonder why your friend from Finland or Fiji can’t contribute to your campaign. The foreign contribution prohibition exists to protect the integrity of all U.S. elections, and courts consistently uphold this ban.
In Bluman v. FEC (2011), the court decision stated, “It is fundamental to the definition of our national political community that foreign citizens do not have a constitutional right to participate in, and thus may be excluded from, activities of democratic self-government. It follows, therefore, that the United States has a compelling interest for purposes of First Amendment analysis in limiting the participation of foreign citizens in activities of American democratic self-government, and in thereby preventing foreign influence over the U.S. political process.”
Although the federal prohibition explicitly mentions state elections, some states have taken additional measures to ensure that foreign contributions stay out of their state and local campaigns. In 2017, for example, North Dakota enacted a law “prohibiting campaign contributions from and expenditures by foreign nationals.”
Why would a state replicate a federal law? According to Representative Corey Mock (D-N.D.), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, candidates—especially first-time candidates—rely on state statutes to guide their campaigns, and the lack of an explicit prohibition in the state’s code may have been a factor in several violations in North Dakota’s 2015 election.
As Mock told The Jamestown Sun, a North Dakota newspaper, "This bill was introduced so that there is no ambiguity, clear up any confusion and state emphatically that foreign campaign contributions are not allowed in North Dakota.” The bill passed the Senate 45-0 and the House 91-2.
Similar bills were passed in New Hampshire in 2017 and Montana in 2019.
Amanda Zoch is an NCSL legislative policy specialist and Mellon/ACLS Fellow.