Q: Russian operatives bought ads on Facebook to influence the U.S. presidential election. Could they do something similar in Massachusetts?
A: Not if our proposed bill in the Massachusetts Legislature passes, which would prohibit companies foreign-influenced corporations from making political expenditures in Massachusetts elections.
Ron Fein, legal director of the Newton-based Free Speech for People, which opposes corporate influence in elections, said the idea for the bill predates reports of Russia meddling in the 2016 election. “But the Russian interference demonstrates exactly how it could happen,” Fein said.
By law, foreigners cannot contribute money to U.S. political campaigns. But the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision made it possible for corporations to make unlimited political expenditures as long as they do not coordinate directly with a candidate. Under that ruling, a foreign entity can set up a U.S.-based corporation and use it to buy political ads.
Three Massachusetts bills, S 394, H 2081 and H 2904, would prohibit foreign-influenced companies from making political expenditures. A foreign-influenced company would be defined as one where one foreign person owns at least 5 percent of the company or two foreign owners own at least 20 percent.
The potential prohibition could affect foreign corporations that have legitimate interests in Massachusetts, such as business investments. Asked about that, Fein said, “We obviously want to welcome foreign investment in the United States, but at the same time, when foreign investors participate in our economy, that doesn’t give them the right to participate in our democracy on the same footing as citizens of the United States or voters in Massachusetts.”
Fein said a foreign investor’s interest is only in their business investment, not the “whole set of considerations” that Massachusetts voters would base their vote on.