The Internationalization of U.S. Elections

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:, September 8, 2017)

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In theory and intent, U.S. law prohibits foreign nationals from participating substantively in U.S. elections.

The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) and Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulations prohibit foreign nationals from:

  • Making any contribution or donation of money or other thing of value, or making any expenditureindependent expenditure, or disbursement in connection with any federal, state or local election in the United States;
  • Making any contribution or donation to any committee or organization of any national, state, district, or local political party (including donations to a party nonfederal account or office building account);
  • Making any disbursement for an electioneering communication.

FECA offers very little wiggle room for allowing foreign actors to interfere in U.S. elections, though “green card” holders are not considered foreign nationals under FECA and have exemption status from the above prohibitions.

One small loophole in FECA does allow foreign nationals to volunteer personal services to a federal candidate or federal political committee without making a contribution. “The Act provides this volunteer exemption as long as the foreign national performing the service is not compensated by anyone,” according to the FECA website. That is why the 2008 Hillary Clinton campaign was comfortable having Elton John perform (for free) at one of her 2008 campaign events.

Yet, there is little doubt anymore that the Russians played a significant role in this past presidential election, and there is evidence the Obama administration knew of Moscow’s plans as early as 2014.

The latest news story regarding the Russians and the 2016 election — this time it is Russians using fake Facebook accounts to buy $100,000 in political ads on Facebook — it begs this simple question: How can we prevent a foreign power from planting “fake news” on the internet or using social media platforms to amplify the impact of this content?

We can’t. We won’t.

So let us just acknowledge that globalization in the internet age has internationalized U.S. elections — because, unless we are willing to erect unprecedented censorship walls around the internet and other media sources, there is little that can be done to stop American voters from reading and distributing news content originally sourced outside U.S. borders.

Russian meddling happened. And, despite the Trump team’s dodgy attempts to deny it, collusion with the Russians probably happened too. Though, I refuse to let go of the possibility that the Trump campaign was simply populated by a bunch of hopelessly stupid and naive hacks hat were easily manipulated by the Russians. That’s not illegal, its just sad.

Did the Russians find ways to help finance the Trump campaign? That would be illegal and remains one of the more interesting questions. And, if true, would not likely touch candidate Trump himself — meaning, whatever happens with the Mueller investigation, we probably get to enjoy at least three more years of the Trump presidency.

The one aspect of the Russian meddling that should give us some comfort is that we knew about it long before November 8th.  The Hillary Clinton campaign thought they could leverage that publicly-known fact to their advantage, but the Obama administration refused to completely lift the lid on what they saw going on with the Russians. Hillary will never forgive Obama for that decision — I hope her new book, “What Happened”is indexed so I can go right to the pages where she blames Obama for her election loss — but she should forgive him. Obama didn’t decide the election outcome.

As for Trump, his campaign’s denials about collusion occurred at the same time candidate Trump was begging the Russians to release Clinton’s 30,000+ deleted emails. He didn’t care about suggesting the Russians could help his campaign because 63 million American voters didn’t care.

The 2016 Popular Vote Outcome was Baked into the Cake Before Anyone Read the Russian-hacked DNC emails

The following fact will not be altered by anything Robert Mueller’s investigation finds: Russian electoral meddling and any possible collusion with the Trump campaign was baked into the final results long before November 8th.

There is a reason many of the econometric models predicted the final popular vote outcome months prior to the general election campaign. [If you don’t believe me, check out’s summary of the 2016 econometric models). While our media and political parties place too much emphasis on political campaigns, factors exogenous to the campaigns themselves — such as economic conditions and incumbency — are far bigger drivers of presidential election outcomes.

Election campaigns are important, however. For one, they inform voters about the relative policy positions of the parties and candidates and help voters align their own issue opinions with those of their preferred party. But, more importantly, in close elections where a shift or 1 or 2 percent can change the outcome, campaigns can have a decisive impact.

The 2016 campaign may be in that latter category. But, given the relatively strong economy in 2016, the popularity of Obama, and the difficulty for one party to win three consecutive presidential elections, Hillary Clinton did about as well as could be expected. She wasn’t a lousy candidate. Donald Trump wasn’t a master manipulator of public opinion. But those will always be the myths.

What do we do now to protect future elections?

How can we protect our elections from foreign influence? The answer is: there is little we can do.

Just prior to Election Day 2016, I argued with my own family about this question. I’ll say now what I said then: “I am not happy about it, but this is our system. Foreign influence in American elections is going to happen this year and every election after. We can’t stop it.”

We all knew about the Russian meddling in 2016. I read about the Russian hacking on Facebook. Between all of the Russian-promoted stories about out-of-control illegal immigration, gays taking over the Boy Scouts and Hillary’s emails, there was an equal deluge of Democratic-sponsored attack news  — I recall one such article suggesting Donald Trump has a secret man-crush on Hitler and keeps Hitler’s best quotes at his bedside.

So, yeah, there’s a lot of bullshit flying around the internet during election time. Who doesn’t know that by now?

That is the election system we have and will have for the rest of our mortal lives.

And why do we have this system? It is one of the by-products of globalization in the internet age.

It also the product of the campaign financing system the Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court has given us.

Dark money is now a formal and approved aspect of our election system.

Dark money is money given to 501(c) nonprofit organizations that can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals, and unions, and are not required to disclose their donors.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, “spending by organizations that do not disclose their donors has increased from less than $5.2 million in 2006 to well over $300 million in the 2012 presidential cycle and more than $174 million in the 2014 midterms.”

If you want to keep the Russians and other international interests out of American politics, the current campaign finance system is not the way to do it.

Just as much as Trump and the Republicans are in denial about our country’s ability to “renegotiate” trade deals like NAFTA or deport 12 million illegal aliens, the Democrats are in denial if they think Russian influence in the 2016 elections won’t happen ever again.

It will.

How do we know this? Because this country has been doing it for decades. We don’t even deny it. We put it on the cover of Time magazine in July, 1996.

Do you think that former KGB officer sitting in St. Petersburg (Putin), whose political future was linked to Yeltsin’s biggest opponent in 1996, was going to forget that little bit of meddling by Bill Clinton, et al.? Not likely. And he didn’t.

Furthermore, U.S interference in foreign elections has a long and dark history: Italy 1948, Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, Chile 1973 , Laos 1957-1973, Greece 1967, Haiti 1986, Russia 1996, Israel 2015).

One researcher estimates the U.S. as interfered in 81 elections between 1946 and 2000.

The attempt by the Obama administration to influence the Israeli 2015 elections was particularly brazen, both in scope and arrogance. While not a fan of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the open attempt by the Obama administration to funnel U.S. taxpayer dollars to Israeli peace groups actively engaged in defeating Netanyahu was shameless — but, apparently, not illegal.

“Some $350,000 was sent to OneVoice, ostensibly to support the group’s efforts to back Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement negotiations,” according to the Washington Times. “But OneVoice used the money to build a voter database, train activists and hire a political consulting firm with ties to President Obama’s campaign .” If someday we learn that Israeli intelligence mucked around in a U.S. election, you can spare me the outrage.

Perhaps it is healthier to view cross-national interference in democratic elections to be the norm, not the exception. The U.S. was doing in Russia (1996) and Israel (2015) exactly what a superpower should do when its interests are affected by election outcomes in far away places. As Frank Sinatra might say, “That’s life!”

Good statecraft requires using state power to influence friends and enemies. What the Russians did to us in 2016 is we did to them in 1996. Its not much more complicated than that.

What is different today, however, is the ability for information — good and bad — to travel very fast in very targeted ways. In a free world, we can’t stop at our borders information we don’t like. If the information source wants the information in the public domain, they will find a way. It is not hard Yet, attempting to stop it would require draconian levels of censorship no free society should tolerate.

We are witnessing the internationalization of our electoral system. Interference from foreign sources has been part of our national elections since the first years of our democratic republic. Ask George Washington, who warned in his 1796 farewell address that the French were trying to meddle in our nation’s upcoming presidential election (and it turns out they were).

Moreover, we should embrace this feature of our elections. The ability to discern accurate, credible information from false, noxious information is a life skill we should all possess.

We should want our citizens to be exposed to different points of view from all parts of the world — even at the risk of some of it (maybe even most of it) being false. That much of the foreign-sourced news and information is deliberately malignant (as it was coming out of Russia this past election) gives, frankly, too much credit to our domestic-sourced news and information.

Our voter registration databases and voting machines are always potential targets, but, as of now, there is no concrete evidence that a single vote or voter registration record was altered by the Russians.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t try.

We should eliminate all unnecessary barriers to voting in this country. If you are an adult U.S. citizen, you are  automatically registered to vote where ever you are living at the time of an election. Period.

Stop pretending that state voter I.D. laws are something other than crass attempts to keep Democrats from voting.

As for the “fake news” phenomenon, education is the only defense we have in today’s free-flowing information environment.

Teach our citizens how to detect bad journalism. Luckily, we have lots of examples to choose from on any given day.

Teach how anonymous sourcing can be used to spread disinformation as easily as it can be used to uncover evidence of political malfeasance.  Why was Woodward and Bernstein’s anonymous sourcing substantively better from how it is generally practiced today? It was.

Educate ourselves about how profit motives can impact the content of our news sources.

We need to better understand how our economic and political system shapes and directs our information streams and how, as informed citizens, we can protect ourselves from rogue actors who attempt to misinform us.

In the age of internationalized U.S. elections, we need to make the American voter the most sophisticated news and information consumer on the planet. (We aren’t.)

That is our only sure defense against future Russian or other country’s meddling in our elections.


About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.