Russia interfered with the 2016 election by deploying social media ad campaigns and troll farms in order to sway the American public. In an effort to prevent future foreign influence, Congress must act to update our election laws and deter foreign interference in a way that does not restrict free speech for Americans. When Democrats introduced the Stop Harmful Interferences in Elections for a Lasting Democracy Act (SHIELD), it was found to contain holes and poison pills that rendered it ineffective in its effort to prevent foreign influence along with being full of partisan language that would never pass the United States Senate.
One of the primary sources for Russian interference in our 2016 election was the use of social media posts intended to influence the American public, yet the SHIELD Act does nothing to prevent these posts or troll farms. Russian operatives broke many existing laws in their attempt to spread false information, yet this legislation offers no additional resources to law enforcement to pursue foreign actors. Without an effective means to prevent future foreign interference through social media or prosecute the foreign agents responsible, this legislation will do nothing to protect our elections.
Republicans share many of the same concerns the Democrats do about foreign interference in our elections, and yet Democrats appeared unwilling to work in a bipartisan manner, leaving Republicans with little choice but to draft separate legislation, the Honest Elections Act. This bill brings existing laws into the 21st Century and strengthens the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires foreign agents to register with the Justice Department and file regular detailed reports with the agency, as well as post notices that their information is foreign-sponsored. The Honest Elections Act also makes it easier to prosecute foreign actors by extending FARA’s territorial reach beyond the U.S. It also broadens FARA’s coverage of “political activities” to including election-influencing activities, a provision that would target Russia and other countries for directing their unpaid social media posts towards influencing U.S. elections.
The Honest Act recognizes the need for Congress to pass legislation updating disclosure and disclaimer requirements for online advertisement without restricting free speech or implementing unworkable standards. It also dedicates more resources to monitoring foreign national spending in elections to protect the integrity of the process and bans dangerous practices like absentee and mail-in “ballot harvesting”, which the SHIELD Act ignores entirely.
While both parties agree that the integrity of our elections must be preserved, Republicans have crafted legislation that will do far more to combat foreign interference on multiple levels. With the 2020 election in sight, we must take swift action and punish foreign actors who attempt to undermine our elections without infringing upon states’ rights or free speech. Americans are the only ones who have the right to determine who our elected officials are, and the Honest Elections Act is our best way of ensuring their right to do so.
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