Worried about the influence of foreign nationals and corporations in American politics, the Hawaii Legislature is pushing a bill to prevent such entities from spending directly on local elections.

“This issue has been growing in recent years with the influence of money and pressure on elections in the U.S.,” said Rep. Chris Lee, the lead author of House Bill 2728. “We want the results of our elections in Hawaii to be based on the will of Hawaii residents and not subject to the intimidation or pressure from foreign governments or others.”

HB 2728 would not only prohibit foreign nationals and corporations and their CEOs from making independent expenditures — that is, money spent directly to advocate for or against a candidate that was not made in cooperation with a candidate — on Hawaii elections but also require every corporation that contributes or expends funds in a state election to file a statement of certification regarding its status as a foreign corporation.

U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia under Vladimir Putin interfered with the 2016 presidential election. Hawaii lawmakers are poised to approve a bill to prohibit similar interference locally. Flickr: Carmen Rodriguez

“Foreign nationals” are defined in the bill as people who are not U.S citizens or lawfully permitted residents, while “corporations” are defined as not just businesses but also foreign countries, political parties or organizations. The same spending restriction would apply to a local subsidiary of a foreign corporation.

Lee said the bill was inspired in part by the outsize influence of Russia in the 2016 presidential elections, something denied by President Donald Trump but confirmed by U.S. intelligence agencies. But there are other concerns as well.

“For sure Russia has been in the news at the national level, but there are other governments and their surrogates in the private sector trying to influence the outcomes of elections in Western nations,” he said. “It is up to us to be vigilant about protecting our democracy and local election results.”

The League of Women Voters of Hawaii supports the bill.

Representative Chris Lee. Civil Beat Editorial Board Meeting. 11 sept 2015. photograph Cory Lum/CIvil Beat
Rep. Chris Lee is the lead author of HB 2738. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“We have seen in recent national elections actions by foreign actors to influence the outcome of elections,” the league’s Beppie Shapiro said in testimony submitted this week. “These actions were not easily attributable to the foreign actors who engaged in them. Federal officials have warned that foreign actors intend to interfere with the 2020 elections.”

HB 2738 was one of hundreds of bills that were left on the legislative table when lawmakers recessed first in March and then again in May because of COVID-19. Supporters of earlier versions of the bill included Common Cause Hawaii, the Pono Hawaii Initiative and Americans for Democratic Action.

The only opposition to HB 2738 came from Fred Delosantos, who in February testified that the bill should be expanded to prohibit out-of-state campaign expenditures, in particular from billionaires.

“Local elections should be for locals, us Hawaii residents, to decide, without the politicians pockets being lined by unscrupulous outsiders in exchange for future ‘favors’ at the expense of their constituents,” he wrote.

Lee’s bill has yet to be opposed by any of his colleagues. It has a hearing Thursday in the Senate Ways and Means Committee. The Legislature concludes its special session next week.

“Everybody understands the urgency that is going on with our elections,” said Lee, who is chair of the House Judiciary Committee. “They want to do their part to safeguard democracy.”

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