BOSTON, MA – As multinational corporations like Uber and Lyft prepare to push a new ballot measure in Massachusetts that would define their drivers as independent contractors, state legislators will hear public testimony today on bills to abolish super PACs and to prohibit spending by foreign-influenced corporations in Massachusetts elections. The hearing, before the Joint Committee on Election Laws, will start at noon today and can be accessed here.

In the Massachusetts Senate, State Senator Jo Comerford is the lead sponsor of Senate bill S.454 and State Senator Mark Montigny is the lead sponsor of Senate bill S.482, which will ban corporate political spending in Massachusetts elections by corporations that are foreign-influenced, or owned in whole or a significant part by foreign investors. Corporations like Uber and Lyft would be prohibited from spending in Massachusetts elections should this legislation be enacted. In the Massachusetts House, State Representative Erika Uyterhoeven is the lead sponsor of the companion House bill H.839 on foreign-influenced corporate money in state elections. Senator Comerford and Representative Uyterhoeven have also introduced the bills, S.455 and H.840, which will establish limits on contributions to political action committees, thereby abolishing super PACs in state elections. State Representative Michael Day has introduced H.772, a companion bill that would also abolish super PACs in state elections.

In March 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in v. FEC opened the door to super PACs by holding that the federal law limiting contributions to political committees to $5,000 per person each year could not be applied to a political committee that promised to make only “independent expenditures.”  While some federal appellate circuits have followed the SpeechNow ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which has jurisdiction over federal cases in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island, has yet to rule on this question, nor has the U.S. Supreme Court or the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Alongside the rise of super PACs, the nation has also witnessed money from corporations with significant foreign ownership flowing into our elections as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which swept away longstanding precedent barring corporate money in our political process.  For example, in August, Uber and Lyft joined a coalition of gig industry companies to promote a ballot measure in Massachusetts that would designate their drivers as independent contractors, restricting the benefits available to them and lowering the companies’ taxes.  Uber’s major foreign investors include a British private equity fund (6.9%), the Saudi government (3.9%), and a Singapore financial company (3.4%)Lyft’s major foreign investors include a Japanese e-commerce conglomerate (9.6%), a British financial firm (3.1%), and banks in France (1.46%) and Australia (1.26%).

This is a problem across the country.  In 2019, Amazon spent over 1.5 million dollars to try to influence the outcome of the Seattle City Council elections that year.  That amount was more than the combined total amount of money raised by candidates not supported by Amazon. More than 5% of Amazon is foreign-owned. In January 2020, the Seattle City Council unanimously enacted a ban on political spending by foreign-influenced corporations based on the same model as the Massachusetts bills.

In Congress, Senator Warren and Representative Pramila Jayapal have proposed the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act which includes a provision to ban foreign-owned and partially foreign-owned corporations from spending on United States elections, including on a State or local ballot initiative or referendum.

“Our democratic self-government should not be for sale to foreign investors. This bill will help protect Massachusetts’ elections from a deluge of political spending by multinational and foreign-influenced corporations,” says Ron Fein, Legal Director of Free Speech For People.

“This bill will close a dangerous loophole that undermines the integrity of our elections. By passing this legislation, Massachusetts could help lead the country in prohibiting foreign-influenced corporate political spending and keeping elections in the hands of the people,” says Alexandra Flores-Quilty, Campaign Director of Free Speech For People.

Free Speech For People, a national non-profit public interest organization founded on the day of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, helped to draft the new bills now pending before the Massachusetts Legislature.  The organization also helped to draft the Seattle, Washington ordinance and an earlier ordinance in St. Petersburg, Florida, the first of their kind in the country, on which the Massachusetts bills are based.

“Even in these divided times, Americans can agree that foreign interests should not be able to influence our political system by pouring money into elections,” says Geoff Foster, Executive Director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “Our country’s Founders were rightly worried about foreign influence in elections, fearing that Europe would try to corrupt and undermine the new Republic’s independence. Here, at the Birthplace of the American Revolution, we should act now to protect our own state’s democracy.”