Bipartisan Bill Introduced Would Give Tools to Fight Foreign Interference in Elections


WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Mark Warner (D-VA) introduced the Honest Ads Act, a bill that addresses some of the most pressing vulnerabilities in campaign finance law that Russia exploited in the 2016 election. Campaign Legal Center (CLC) advised on the bill when it was introduced in the last Congress and co-sponsored by the late Senator John McCain (R-AZ). Representatives Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY) lead companion legislation in the House of Representatives, which has 26 co-sponsors.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that “[t]he Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” and a key method of that interference was “a social media campaign designed to provoke and amplify political discord in the United States,” including through the purchase of paid digital political advertisements. But because Congress has not updated campaign finance disclosure laws for the digital age, those ads could circulate undetected and undeterred. The Honest Ads Act would help update those laws to prevent foreign actors from replicating these tactics in future elections.  

HONEST stands for “Holding Online National Electioneering ads to the Same Test.” The bill’s purpose is to modernize the laws surrounding the ban on foreign election interference by ensuring that paid internet ads are subject to the same disclaimer and recordkeeping rules that currently apply to television ads and radio ads. If enacted, this bill would require major sellers of online advertising – like Google, Facebook and Twitter – to keep a publicly available database of significant political advertising, including the content of the ads and who paid for them.

The Honest Ads Act is a useful bipartisan disclosure response to the foreign interference we witnessed in 2016, and would make it more difficult for foreign actors to target American voters,” said Trevor Potter, president of Campaign Legal Center (CLC), and a former Republican Chairman of the Federal Election Commission. “The Honest Ads Act gives voters, journalists, and law enforcement officers’ important tools to help root out illegal foreign activity. By strengthening transparency, this bill would protect the integrity of our elections for 2020 and beyond.”

“Foreign adversaries interfered in the 2016 election and are continuing to use information warfare to try to influence our government and divide Americans. We must act now to protect our democracy and prevent this kind of interference from ever happening again,” said Klobuchar. “The goal of the Honest Ads Act is simple: to ensure that voters know who is paying to influence our political system. The bill would put in place the same rules of the road for social media platforms that currently apply to political ads sold on TV, radio, and in print regarding disclaimers and disclosures so that Americans know who is behind the ads they see online. I also want to commend Senator Graham for taking up the mantle of bipartisanship from our late friend, Senator John McCain. Protecting our elections isn’t about politics—it’s about national security and the future of our democracy. I look forward to working with him and Senator Warner to get the Honest Ads Act passed.”

“Hardening our electoral infrastructure will require a comprehensive approach and it can’t be done with a single piece of legislation,” said Graham.  “I am cosponsoring this legislation because it’s clear we have to start somewhere. I am pleased to work with Senators Klobuchar and Warner to address the gaps that currently exist, particularly with regards to social media. Online platforms have made some progress but there is more to be done. Foreign interference in U.S. elections – whether Russia in the 2016 presidential election or another rogue actor in the future – poses a direct threat to our democracy. I intend to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to bolster our defenses and defend the integrity of our electoral system.”

“In 2016, Russia waged widespread disinformation campaigns that exploited social media in an effort to attack our democracy and divide the American public. As we continue to grow increasingly dependent on a handful of very large platforms, there is no doubt in my mind that foreign adversaries will continue to follow in Russia’s footsteps, exploiting the scale, amplification, and lack of transparency of these platforms in order to undermine the strength of the United States and advance their own anti-American agendas,” Warner said. “Right now, our country needs strong defenses that help ward off shady online attacks by demanding increased transparency, which is why I’m proud to introduce the Honest Ads Act. By requiring large digital platforms to meet the same disclosure standards as broadcast, cable, and satellite ads, this legislation can help prevent foreign actors from manipulating the American public and interfering in our free and fair elections through the use of inauthentic and divisive paid ads.”

The re-introduction of the Honest Ads Act comes on the same day CLC held a call-in event on foreign interference and the lessons learned from the Mueller report, where CLC attorneys discussed solutions to protect our democracy against foreign influence. Download our report here.

Read CLC’s summary of the Honest Ads Act here.