Indirect foreign funding of ballot measure campaigns leads to Senate GOP bill banning foreign funds

"Democrats have recently benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in election-related contributions from a shadowy foreign billionaire, sidestepping the federal ban on foreign-national contributions in U.S. elections,” Sen. Bill Hagerty said.
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Senate Republicans have introduced a bill banning foreign funding of election activity after a Swiss billionaire gave more than $200 million to a liberal dark money group that funds various ballot measure campaigns.

Six Republican senators have introduced a bill banning direct and indirect funding by foreign nationals of election administration and ballot measure campaigns, following donations to such issues by Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, a left-wing donor who lives in Wyoming.

While foreign nationals are barred by law from donating to candidates and campaigns, they have not been prohibited from funding organizations that sponsor ballot measures. Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., introduced a bill on Wednesday with five other Republican senators that would prevent foreign funding of any election-related activity.

According to Hagerty’s announcement, the Preventing Foreign Interference in American Elections Act:

  • “Prevents circumvention of the ban on ‘indirect’ election-related contributions by foreign nationals by expressly covering any donation with an express or implied instruction (including involving intermediaries or conduits) that results in the donation being used for prohibited U.S. election-related activity;
  • Prohibits foreign-national contributions for ballot harvesting, get-out-the-vote activity, public communications that promote a political party, or ‘Zuckerbucks’-type election administration activity;
  • Bars foreign nationals from donating in connection with state ballot initiatives; and
  • Prohibits overbroad investigations or pretextual government collection or disclosure of Americans’ nonprofit donor information for the purpose of intimidation or chilling Americans’ free-speech rights.”

“After years of hysteria over Russiagate and alleged foreign influence in American elections, it turns out Democrats have recently benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in election-related contributions from a shadowy foreign billionaire, sidestepping the federal ban on foreign-national contributions in U.S. elections,” Hagerty said in a statement on Wednesday.

“This type of influence undermines democracy and self-government here in America, and its staggering scope should be alarming. I’m pleased to introduce this commonsense and critical legislation that will put an end to covert foreign influence on our elections and protect Americans’ voice in electing their leaders,” he added.

Wyss, who is not an American citizen, started two nonprofits: the Wyss Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, and the Berger Action Fund, a 501(c)4 organization.

According to a report by Americans for Public Trust (APT), both organizations have donated $475 million to influence U.S. politics since the Wyss Foundation’s founding in 1998 and the Berger Action Fund’s creation in 2007.

Wyss’ nonprofits have given $265 million to Arabella Advisors nonprofits, including $57.8 million to New Venture Fund, according to a report by Americans for Public Trust. New Venture Fund is the largest nonprofit created by the Arabella Advisors network.

The Capital Research Center reported that New Venture Fund gave the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) — which was funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2020 — nearly $25 million.

CTCL poured about $350 million into local elections offices managing the 2020 election, with most of the funds donated to the nonprofit by Zuckerberg. The nonprofit has claimed its 2020 election grants — which were the first funds to be called "Zuckerbucks" — were allegedly allocated without partisan preference to make voting safer amid the pandemic.

However, a House Republican investigation found that less than 1% of the funds were spent on personal protective equipment. Most of the funds were focused on get-out-the-vote efforts and registrations.

APT released a report on Wednesday with the Senate legislation, which details Wyss’ contributions to a dark money group that has influenced ballot campaigns across half the states for over a decade. According to the report, Wyss funneled $243 million into the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a liberal dark money group that has given more than $1 billion to liberal causes and groups since it began in 2009. During the 2014 election cycle, Fair Share Action received $1,450,000 from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, Fair Share then spent a total of $2,541,465 to support or oppose federal candidates. Of the total, $1,787,440 supported Democratic candidates and $754,025 opposed Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Sixteen Thirty Fund has invested nearly $98 million on ballot issues across 25 states over the last 10 years, APT found. The six states that have seen the most amount of money from the Sixteen Thirty Fund for liberal ballot measures are Michigan, Ohio, Colorado, Nebraska, Missouri, and Nevada.

The Sixteen Thirty Fund spent $33.5 million in Michigan across nearly 10 ballot measures; $14.6 million in Ohio, mostly from last year; nearly $11 million in Colorado; $6.4 million in Nebraska across three ballot measures; $6.4 million in Missouri across two ballot measures; and $6.3 million in Nevada for one ballot measure in 2018 for automatic voter registration.

The liberal ballot measures that the Sixteen Thirty Fund has supported range from proposals that harm small businesses to pro-abortion laws.

APT Executive Director Caitlin Sutherland said in a statement on Wednesday regarding the report and Senate bill, “It is irresponsible and alarming that our laws leave the door open to foreign nationals and U.S. adversaries influencing American politics.

"Our report reveals that Sixteen Thirty Fund alone is acting as a conduit for massive amounts of money from a foreign billionaire with an expressed desire to reshape U.S. politics to align with his out-of-touch worldview," she added. "After years of national discourse about fears of foreign influence in our elections, this commonsense proposal to close the foreign influence loophole should be something everyone can support."

Last August, Wyoming Secretary of State Chuck Gray (R) warned county clerks about “any attempts made by third parties to fund the administration of elections in Wyoming.” Gray mentioned the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, a project of the CTCL, saying that the source of the organization’s funding includes “potentially foreign actors living here in Wyoming.”

In late January, two Ohio Republican state senators introduced a bill “to prohibit foreign nationals from making contributions or expenditures regarding ballot issue campaigns.”

The legislation was introduced a couple weeks after Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) called for “immediate action” from lawmakers “to close a ‘foreign influence’ loophole” with regard to “bankrolling campaigns for or against proposed statewide ballot issues.”

LaRose’s call to lawmakers included a graphic showing how Wyss’ nonprofits sent funds to organizations that push for progressive ballot measures in Ohio.

“In reviewing the campaign finance records associated with two statewide constitutional ballot issues in 2023, my staff compiled evidence showing foreign nationals have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into 501(c) entities, which then spent millions of dollars in Ohio to influence the outcomes of these proposed constitutional amendments,” LaRose said in a statement.