Maine Misses Chance to Fight Foreign Election Interference

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A large yellow "Q" with a lightning bolt on the outside of a building
The headquarters of Hydro-Quebec in Montreal, Canada. Hydro-Quebec is a Canadian government-owned public utility which spent large amounts of money on a 2020 ballot measure election in Maine. Photo by Torontonian / Alamy Stock Photo

Last week, Maine missed an opportunity to combat foreign interference in its elections and further build confidence in its electoral process. After the state legislature passed LD 194, a bipartisan bill that would prohibit foreign governments and foreign government-owned corporations from spending to influence state and local ballot measure elections, the governor vetoed the bill and the legislature failed to override the veto.

Governor Janet Mills' veto came after a Canadian government-owned public utility, Hydro-Quebec, funneled enormous sums of money into a ballot measure election in Maine, pouring nearly $10 million into opposing a Maine citizen initiative in 2020, dwarfing all other spenders. In response to this unprecedented spending by a foreign government directly in a Maine election, three legislators introduced bills to stop this kind of foreign meddling, including LD 194.

As Maine Citizens for Clean Elections explained in their testimony supporting the three bills, "[w]ithout question, legislation is needed to patch the holes in current law protecting against undue influence of foreign interests." Although limited in scope, LD 194 would have been a step in the right direction, primarily by barring foreign governments and corporations owned by them from spending money on Maine ballot measure elections.

In vetoing LD 194, the governor questioned the bill’s constitutionality. Contrary to the governor's misgivings, State Senator Rick Bennett—in supporting the veto override—correctly explained that, “barring foreign governments and corporations owned by them from spending to influence referendum elections is plainly constitutional.”

As the senator noted, “federal law has long barred foreign nationals, including foreign governments, from spending to influence federal, state, and local candidate elections, such as elections for governor or legislators.” In Bluman v. FEC, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the federal foreign interference ban, summarily affirming a lower court decision written by then-Judge Kavanaugh. As that decision explained, “[i]t is fundamental to the definition of our national political community that foreign citizens do not have a constitutional right to participate in, and thus may be excluded from, activities of democratic self-government."

Bluman’s reasoning provides even stronger justification for preventing foreign nationals from spending in state and local ballot measures, in which voters are participating in direct democracy to enact their own laws at the ballot box.

Senator Bennett also highlighted that seven states already prohibit foreign governments, foreign corporations, or both from spending to influence ballot measures: California, Colorado, Maryland, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Washington. And this year, states legislatures have taken the lead on pursuing laws to further protect our democracy from foreign interference.

Looking forward, a strong policy to prevent foreign interference in elections would prohibit election spending not only by foreign governments and foreign government-owned corporations, but also by corporations with significant foreign ownership or control. Further measures to protect elections from foreign interference include requiring transparency about the true sources of election spending and updating digital ad rules.

For example, another bill introduced in the Maine legislature this year, LD 479, would have comprehensively protected the right to democratic self-government in Maine, including by prohibiting election spending by foreign-influenced corporations and barring foreign spending on ballot measures. CLC submitted testimony in support of LD 479 and affirming the bill’s constitutionality.

By plugging the gaps that permit foreign spending in our elections, we can ensure that our government is responsive to the people instead of foreign interests and safeguard our right to democratic self-governance.

Aaron works with CLC's State & Local Reform program to help state and local stakeholders achieve pro-democracy policy reforms.