CLC Report: U.S. Elections Remain Vulnerable to Foreign Influence

WASHINGTON – Today, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) released a report detailing the vulnerabilities of American elections to foreign interference that were exposed in the 2016 presidential election. The report outlines solutions for addressing this most urgent issue, which would protect the integrity of our democracy for the upcoming 2018 elections and beyond. Listen to the recording of a call hosted by the report's authors.

Foreign interference is a democracy issue, and the importance of addressing it goes far beyond the 2016 election. It is about protecting the foundations of our representative form of government, particularly in a world where political advertising is increasingly moving online. From the targeted theft of emails from political parties, to purported offers of opposition research, from a secret social media advertising campaign, to attempted hacking of state election systems, the 2016 elections showed that foreign interference could come in many forms. Our system was not equipped to handle it. In 2018, these threats could come from Russia again, or any number of other foreign countries or actors with an interest in influencing or disrupting U.S. democracy. The report is written by six authors and is a byproduct of a full-day event hosted by CLC in October 2017 convening legal experts, academics, journalists, and practitioners from across disciplines to address the pressing matter of foreign interference in U.S. elections.

“Left unaddressed, the vulnerabilities in U.S. elections exposed in 2016 will only be exploited to greater effect by foreign actors in 2018 and beyond,” said Trevor Potter, president of CLC, and a former Republican chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC). “Addressing gaps in our campaign finance law requires a dual strategy that strengthens our ability to deter foreign actors and strengthens our defenses. The President, Congress, and the FEC must treat foreign efforts to influence our elections as a top-tier national security threat and act urgently to reestablish America’s ability to prevent future meddling.”

“Both Congress and the FEC have largely failed to update laws and regulations as political campaigning has increasingly moved online,” said Brendan Fischer, director, federal and FEC reform at CLC. “This created a system with many gaps in the law, which Russia secretly exploited. The FEC is the only government agency dedicated to overseeing the integrity of our elections. It must take action to improve transparency for digital ads. The desire of foreign governments and other foreign interests to influence U.S. elections and policy is unlikely to abate, so the time for action is now.”

Campaign finance loopholes allowed Russia to secretly purchase thousands of digital political ads that reached millions of Americans. This included at least 3,000 political ads on Facebook. The Honest Ads Act is a bipartisan step forward that would help prevent foreign actors from influencing our elections by ensuring that political ads sold online are subject to the same disclosure requirements as ads sold on TV and radio. CLC advised the offices of the Senators who sponsored this legislation. It has yet to receive a hearing.

CLC makes the following recommendations within the report:

  • The FEC and internet platforms should require political advertisers to identify themselves to voters.
  • Congress should strengthen disclosure laws, including by passing the bipartisan HONEST Ads Act.
  • Further research and analysis are needed to develop an effective approach to social media bot activity.
  • The public and private sectors should strengthen voters’ media literacy.
  • Congress must bolster our election infrastructure security and modernize voting equipment.
  • Addressing foreign interference must be treated as a national priority.

This report was made possible with support from the Democracy Fund.