FEC Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub

FEC Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub

The U.S. Federal Election Commission (FEC), unlike most central election commissions around the world, is an unusual entity as it doesn't run the elections. American elections are managed at the state and local level. And what the FEC does at the federal level is regulate money in politics.

There are certain rules from election contribution to candidates' spending in America. And the FEC is in charge of implementing and enforcing those rules.

"The primary rule is that the money which is raised has to be disclosed. It is mostly a privately funded system, but the money is fully disclosed," says FEC Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub, the country’s top election official.

American election campaigns are expensive.  It’s a big country, and particularly if you’re running a national campaign, it costs a lot of money to move around the country, and buy advertising, and hold rallies, etc.  In 2016, the federal election which involved the presidency, the entire House of Representatives, and one third of the Senate all were up for election, and the cost of that election was $6.5 billion. That is a lot of money, and it "probably will be more expensive this year," Commissioner Weintraub says.

"Candidates who have already dropped out of the race for nominating the presidency have already spent over a billion dollars. And those are the ones who aren’t even in the race anymore," she explained.

Most Americans are also worried about increasing foreign attempts to funnel money into their elections. Continuing down this path may move the decision on who is to be the next president of the free world out of American hands.

While the ban on foreign national spending in the U.S. elections is well established, unequivocal and clear on its face, a lot of people have raised their concerns about the law’s scope.

Last week TURAN's Washington correspondent had a chance to address several questions to FEC chair during her appearance at the State Department's Foreign Press Center:

TURAN: How common in America is the campaign violation based on foreign influence? And has it ever reached to a level of fraud? If it has, what is the remedy? I mean, impeachment is some sort of version of remedy if you consider that, but how do you prevent foreign influence moving ahead?

MS WEINTRAUB:  So there is a law that says that foreign nationals are not allowed to spend money in our politics; they’re not allowed to contribute to any candidate, to the party committees, to any of the political committees that are out there.  And this is true at the federal, state, and local level.  So, normally we just have jurisdiction at the federal level about the money that’s raised and spent on elections for Congress, for the House of Representatives, for the Senate, and for the presidency.  But when it comes to the foreign national ban, we have jurisdiction over elections throughout the country at any level. It is just as illegal to make a foreign donation to a candidate for mayor as – or a sheriff as it is for the presidency. And it is illegal to solicit, receive, or accept anything of value from a foreign source in connection with a U.S. election.  So – and we have jurisdiction over all of that.

The biggest case we had recently involved the domestic subsidiary of a Chinese company that made a $1.3 million donation to what – a super PAC, one of these outside political action committees that was supporting Jeb Bush in 2016, and the commission investigated that and negotiated a penalty of roughly $900,000 on that one.  So that was the biggest foreign national case that we’ve had recently, but it is an area of priority for the commission and the entire – all of the commissioners are very concerned about this issue.

TURAN: I’ve covered foreign lobbying for a long time, from Azerbaijan to Russia to Turkey...  How do you draw the line between foreign lobbying – I mean, foreign countries seeking influence on the candidates through lobbying - versus other means that you are able to prevent?

MS WEINTRAUB: There are separate laws that we don’t administer.  There’s the Foreign Agents Registration Act for anyone who is lobbying the government, so not trying to spend money to get people elected but rather trying to influence what they do once they are in office.  And there are rules on disclosure and registration of people who are representing foreign governments in lobbying our government that’s administered by the Justice Department and to some degree by the Congress itself, which collects those reports.

TURAN: You mentioned the importance of disclosures... This might be a far-fetched question, but do the U.S. campaign finance laws have any requirement or element of the truth?  We hear the President Trump often talks about “fake news.”  There are also all fact-checking missions - on both sides - are involved. But what do the laws say about that?

MS WEINTRAUB:  In terms of our jurisdiction, the truth that we have jurisdiction over ensuring is that people are properly filing their forms and conveying honest and true information in them.  Somebody has to sign every single campaign finance disclosure under penalty of perjury.  There’s a treasurer appointed for every political committee, for every candidate committee.  They sign under penalty of perjury, and people have gone to jail for making false statements to the government, including on their FEC reports.  So we do administer the laws that ensure the truth of the campaign finance disclosures.

We are not a free-ranging truth body.  We are not in a position to verify the truth of everything that every candidate or political actor says.  And I believe that if – that would be – if somebody tried to write a law giving us that power, I suspect the Supreme Court would say that was inconsistent with the First Amendment for the government to be deciding what’s true and what’s not true.  That is, the premise of our First Amendment is that people say what they want about politics and if somebody disagrees with them then they should engage in counter-speech and make a contrary argument, and the – ultimately the citizens will decide who’s right and who’s wrong or who they believe or who they want to support.

TURAN:  Did you know about the role of the social media [in election processes] before 2016? In no, now that we know its real power, is the U.S. better prepared this time?

MS WEINTRAUB: Social media has taken on a bigger role, and I think that the platforms have a responsibility to make sure that they are being responsible purveyors of information, but that is – again, I think there would be First Amendment problems if somebody tried to write a law saying that we had to tell the social media companies what they could and couldn’t have on their platforms and what they can and can’t say.  I think the – there is some fact-checking that is going on.  They’re not fact-checking everything, but they are – the different platforms have adopted different standards.  I do think that we need to update some of our laws to take into account – some of our laws address advertising that goes on on a broadcast medium or in newspapers and doesn’t address digital advertising to the same degree.  And we are seeing, obviously, a big increase in digital advertising.  So I think that’s an area that some of our legislators are working on, and I hope they will succeed.

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