Closing a Major Citizens United Loophole

We’ve established that Citizens United was a disastrous decision for American democracy. But did you know that it also allowed foreign interests to dodge federal laws to influence our elections?

According to federal election law, foreign governments and individuals are not allowed to participate in U.S. elections. But after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, foreign entities had a new avenue to exert influence: corporations. Financial groups based in other countries can acquire stakes in U.S. corporations and then use that leverage to influence or control the corporation’s political activity, including contributions to campaigns and super PACs, and independent expenditures.

Companies like Uber, DoorDash, Amazon, and Airbnb have taken this loophole and run with it. These multinational corporations have used their money to bolster business-friendly politicians, influence ballot measures, and advance political agendas in their favor. Just to name a few examples:

  • In 2019, Amazon spent $1.5 million in an attempt to remake the Seattle City Council and make it more corporate-friendly. They weren’t successful, however, and the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance the following January that banned foreign-influenced corporate spending in city elections.
  • In 2020, Uber, Lyft, DoorDash spent over $160 million in support of Proposition 22 in California. The measure passed, blocking gig workers from accessing employee benefits.
  • In 2021, Mainers went to the polls to decide whether Central Maine Power (CMP) and its partners could continue to construct a hydroelectric corridor between Quebec and Massachusetts, cutting through a large swath of Maine’s pristine North Woods. In the months before the election, CMP, Hydro Quebec, and others spent over $60 million bombarding Mainers with television ads and mailers opposing the measure and misleading the public, ultimately losing in a 60-40 vote. Central Maine Power is a subsidiary of Spanish power giant Iberdola, and as you might have guessed, Hydro Quebec is based in Canada.
  • When the New York Legislature sought to crack down on advertising of illegal units on home-sharing sites in 2016, Airbnb spent over $11 million to oppose it. Governor Cuomo eventually signed the bill into law, but the company bombarded people with advertisements and then sued the state, clearing Airbnb of all liability under the new law in the settlement.

Examples like these show not only how inundated our politics has become with corporate money, but also how easy it is for foreign interests to sway our elections through the activities of multinational corporations.

What’s to be done?

Last month, Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland proposed a solution: the “Get Foreign Money Out of U.S. Elections Act.” The bill, based on the ordinance passed in Seattle and the model legislation crafted by our friends at Free Speech For People, would ban multinational corporations from contributing to candidates, parties, or super PACs, or from engaging in their own direct election spending. Under this bill, a multinational corporation is defined as any company that meets one of the following conditions:

  • A foreign owner holds, owns, controls, or has beneficial ownership of one percent or more of the business;
  • Multiple foreign owners hold, own, control, or have beneficial ownership of five percent or more of the business; or
  • A foreign owner participates directly or indirectly in the business entity’s decision-making process with respect to political activities.

“Six days after the Supreme Court invented corporate free speech rights in Citizens United, President Obama warned that the Court had just opened ‘the floodgates’ for foreign interests to funnel cash freely into American elections through corporations,” Rep. Raskin said in a press release. “He was right. The Get Foreign Money Out of U.S. Elections Act will stop this dangerous stream of foreign cash and influence from flowing in our campaigns through corporate spending.”

While the work of fully overturning the Citizens United decision will take time, passing this bill would eliminate one of the largest threats to our elections. It would also keep some of campaign finance’s biggest players from having a say in how American people vote.

Call your Representatives at (202) 224-3121 or (202) 224-3091 (TTY) and urge them to support the “Get Foreign Money Out of U.S. Elections Act” today!

And don’t forget to stamp your bills to tell the world CORPORATIONS ARE NOT PEOPLE!