Foreign-influenced political spending is a threat to our democracy

What Massachusetts lawmakers can do to protect our elections from foreign influences.

Our country’s Founders were worried about potential foreign influence in our nation’s elections from the very start — and rightfully so. In George Washington’s 1796 farewell address, he warned, “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence… the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”

Fearing that Europe would try to undermine our new republic’s independence through the most powerful office, the Founding Fathers wrote two measures into the Constitution that give the legislative and judicial branches the power to check the executive branch if necessary: the emoluments clause, which prevents any elected representative or ambassador from accepting gifts from foreign powers, and the power to impeach a president.

The influence of foreign powers is far more complex today than it was in 1787, and it goes beyond just the office of the President. The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision Citizens United v. FEC opened the door for corporations to donate freely to American campaigns, including state elections in Massachusetts. This means that for-profit corporations — including those under foreign control or influence — have the power to spend unlimited money in our elections.

Foreign influence comes in many new and impactful forms in 2023. Consider the gig worker ballot measure that was shut down by our state Supreme Court last year. Corporations like Uber and Lyft, who stood to benefit from the passage of the ballot measure, donated tens of millions of dollars towards the initiative. Lyft’s $13 million contribution in December 2021 was the largest political donation in state history.

Corporate influence on our political systems is concerning on its own. But if we look closer, we’ll also see that foreign investors influence the corporations that are making these large contributions. 

For example, S​​audi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding, the investment firm of billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, bought 5.3 percent of Lyft for $247.7 million in 2015. Uber accepted $3.5 billion from Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in 2016. Saudi Arabia alone has a $700 billion dollar Public Investment Fund, which has invested in a wide range of companies and projects, from Russian infrastructure to the investment firm run by Jared Kushner, former President Trump’s son-in-law. 

Though Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman likely had no involvement in the Massachusetts gig worker ballot measure, there is obvious potential for powerful foreign influence on our state elections. It’s a loophole that is easily exploited, and it needs to be closed.

Here in Massachusetts, we can act by passing legislation that protects our elections from political spending by companies under foreign influence. An Act Limiting Political Spending by Foreign-Influenced Corporations, introduced by state Senator Mark Montigny as bill S.430 and Representative Erika Uyterhoeven as bill H.722, would limit political spending in Massachusetts elections by foreign-influenced corporations. “Foreign-influenced” would be defined as any corporation with a single foreign owner with 1 percent ownership or more, or multiple foreign owners with at least 5 percent ownership or more.

Many other states are taking similar actions to protect our elections. Colorado and Minnesota have recently passed similar prohibitions on political spending by foreign-influenced corporations, and similar bills have been introduced in California and New York this year. 

Here at the birthplace of the American Revolution, we should act now to protect our democracy. Fight back against the “insidious wiles of foreign influence” today by calling your state Representatives and Senators and asking them to support H.722 and S.430 to close this foreign-influenced corporation loophole in our campaign finance law.