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Protect our elections from foreign interference

As the next presidential election draws nearer, we have every reason to believe that our foes will ramp up their efforts to covertly influence American voters. 

For years now, the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has warned top state election and cybersecurity officials about threats posed by Russia and other foreign adversaries ahead of the 2024  elections. We know that Russia, Iran, and China have meddled in previous elections, targeting specific audiences and sowing disinformation online in an attempt to undermine confidence in our democratic institutions.

Will Connecticut become one of the next fronts in the disinformation war being waged by America’s foreign adversaries?

Former Mayor Alex Knopp. (File photo)

As it stands today, Connecticut’s campaign finance law contains a vulnerable loophole that allows foreign individuals and entities to spend foreign funds without limit to influence the outcome of our state and local ballot referenda. Our state’s current law limits a political committee formed solely to aid or promote the success or defeat of a  referendum question from receiving contributions from a national committee or from a committee of a  candidate for federal or out-of-state office but this provision is totally silent on funds from foreign sources. 

When I began researching this issue in 2021, I expected to find that foreign interference in Connecticut  referenda had been prohibited by federal law, because foreign nationals are barred by federal law from donating to federal and state candidates or political committees in all elections

But a recent legal decision by the Federal Election Commission held that “ballot referenda” are not “elections,” and therefore concluded that Congress had not acted to close the federal loophole that permits foreign spending to influence the outcome of state and local referenda. 

That decision made ballot measures in every state fair game for the corrupting influence of foreign spending.

In the wake of federal inaction, I believe individual states should protect their local democracies from foreign interference. Fortunately, several states have already done so. The most recent state to act was Maine, when by popular vote in November 2023 it enacted a ban as a state constitutional amendment. This measure was enacted in response to “a massive influx of foreign money” into Maine’s state ballot referenda elections.

Our legislators in Hartford should join with Maine and a dozen other states by enacting Senate Bill 253, the specific legislation drafted to prohibit contributions or expenditures by foreign nationals or entities on state and local ballot referenda in our state.

But why is it important for Connecticut to act this year to close this foreign money loophole? 

Unlike many other states that enable issue-based referenda, the use of the statewide ballot referendum in  Connecticut is limited — we only allow statewide ballot measures to ratify amendments to the state constitution. Connecticut voters recently approved such an amendment in the 2022 election to permit early voting and will go to the polls again in November 2024 for a ratification referendum on “no-excuse” absentee voting.

Any attempts by foreign interests to make expenditures in those elections could result in foreign entities blocking beneficial changes that impact the very constitutional structure of our state government and access to the ballot box. 

All of us — Democrats, Republicans, and unaffiliated voters — should be concerned that Vladimir Putin or President Xi could spend huge amounts of their ill-gotten funds to influence the sole legal statewide referendum allowed in our state. And in doing so, they would not be violating any federal or state campaign finance laws.

We should not forget the fact that ballot referenda are much more common occurrences in local government in  Connecticut, including annual budget referenda, votes on charter revisions, and advisory ballot measures.  Foreign expenditures could put our system of grass-roots democracy at risk by threatening to drown out  the voices of local voters. 

Top national intelligence officials recently warned that “foreign adversaries and other bad actors are licking their chops as they watch efforts to destabilize our  elections.” Foreign money loopholes, combined with the unregulated ability of social media to spread disinformation, have contributed to polarization and divisiveness. Foreign enemies want to divide us by making voters feel like their votes don’t matter, or by convincing voters that their election administrators can’t be trusted. 

I served as the Chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee from 1999 to 2001. In my legislative experience, bi-partisan victories enacting election law reforms were rare. But the good news is that SB 253 has already won unanimous bipartisan votes in the Elections Committee and in the Judiciary Committee and is supported by the State Election Enforcement Commission. It is now ready for final action in the General Assembly.

By enacting SB 253 this year, legislators can take a giant step toward improved election integrity and enhanced voter confidence in the outcome of ballot referenda in Connecticut. Let’s prevent Connecticut from becoming the next front in the disinformation war being waged by America’s adversaries abroad.

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Alex Knopp served as Mayor and State Representative from Norwalk and taught the Legislative Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School. He is a Board of Director of Common Cause of Connecticut.

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