On March 3, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1: For the People Act of 2021, advancing to the Senate what would be the most comprehensive overhaul of U.S. election law in the past half a century. The 791-page bill includes important measures that would strengthen U.S. defenses against authoritarian interference across four key areas: election security, campaign finance transparency, restrictions on cooperation with foreign powers, and threat assessments.
H.R. 1 includes provisions that would bolster the security and reliability of election infrastructure. These policies are important to stay one step ahead of those who might take aim at the nation’s election systems and to build confidence in the integrity of the vote.
To build resilience into election infrastructure, H.R. 1 would require all jurisdictions to use voter-verified paper ballots, and the Election Assistance Commission would be directed to issue grants to states in order to replace paperless voting systems. Moreover, vendors that supply election equipment or services purchased by the grants would be subject to a range of cyber security standards and tests. Additional grants would be authorized for states to conduct post-election risk-limiting audits, which use statistical methodologies to ensure the accuracy of the vote count. These security and integrity policies would help defend against authoritarian efforts to compromise election infrastructure and cast doubt on the legitimacy of election outcomes.
Campaign Finance Transparency
The bill also includes provisions to combat covert foreign spending in U.S. elections, increase transparency around online political advertising, and restructure the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) to improve its ability to enforce campaign finance laws. Over the past decade, authoritarian regimes have aggressively funneled covert money through legal loopholes to buy influence in U.S. elections and public discourse. Policies to block the flow of foreign cash into the nation’s politics are urgently needed.
H.R. 1 would ban foreign nationals from participating in decision making related to campaign spending by individuals, corporations, super PACs, and unions. This prohibition would extend to ballot measures and referenda campaigns and include new categories of foreign spending restrictions, such as paid issue ads. CEOs and other organizational leaders would also have to submit a certification to the FEC stating that a foreign national did not directly or indirectly influence political spending decisions. The legislation would also prohibit political operatives from using layers of front organizations to conceal foreign cash. These measures would help close gaps in the current legal framework that allow authoritarian money to distort democratic processes.
Online political ads would also be subject to more robust transparency standards. Notably, H.R. 1 includes the Honest Ads Act, which has received bipartisan and industry support. This act would require all digital ads to disclose their funders in a “clear and conspicuous manner” and bar foreign nationals from buying online ads that mention candidates. Furthermore, digital platforms with over 50 million unique visitors per month—like Facebook and Twitter—would be required to maintain public databases of all online political ads, providing the public with critical information on ad buyers and their target audience. These provisions would limit the scope and effectiveness of authoritarian disinformation campaigns, which routinely use online ads to target Americans with divisive social and political content.
Finally, to ensure campaign finance laws are enforced, provisions in the bill would restructure the FEC to avoid the partisan gridlock that has limited its ability to act in recent years. The number of commissioners would be lowered from six to five, with no more than two commissioners from a single party, ensuring that one commissioner would be a tie-breaking independent. The commission would also be administered by a chairperson to foster more accountable leadership, and the FEC’s career staff would be given additional flexibility when selecting cases to streamline the civil enforcement process. These reforms would help ensure that the FEC is able to root out foreign money, address the evolving legal and technological landscape, and provide guidance to political candidates and campaigns.
Restrictions on Cooperation with Foreign Powers
H.R. 1 would codify norms against collaborating with agents of a foreign power for political advantage—activity that is not currently criminal, but should be. A bipartisan Senate investigation categorized U.S. participation in foreign interference as a “grave counterintelligence threat,” underscoring the need to enact clear and comprehensive restrictions against the practice.
Under H.R. 1, candidates, campaigns, parties, and super PACs would face criminal penalties for knowingly cooperating with agents of a foreign state. Political actors would be required to reject foreign support and report foreign contacts to the FBI and FEC. Moreover, campaigns would have to maintain a record of foreign contacts and establish internal reporting mechanisms to ensure accurate and timely reporting. The FBI would then be tasked with presenting each foreign contact notification to Congressional intelligence committees and submitting an annual report on those notifications. These disclosure requirements would shut loopholes that have enabled candidates to solicit assistance from foreign powers without legal repercussions.
The bill includes a range of additional measures to ensure that politicians and political organizations are not working with or on behalf of foreign nations. H.R. 1 would ban the exchange of nonpublic campaign information with foreign operatives, including polling data and opposition research. It also puts forward language clarifying that domestic and foreign actors can be considered in cooperation with one another without a formal agreement. Finally, presidential and vice presidential candidates would be directed to release tax returns from the past ten years.
H.R. 1 would instruct federal agencies to regularly assess election threats and develop a national strategy to combat cyberattacks, influence operations, and disinformation aimed at undermining democratic institutions. These efforts would help the United States shore up its vulnerabilities, leverage its strategic assets, and seize the initiative in the competition with authoritarianism.
The bill would direct the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to submit a joint annual report to Congress on foreign threats to elections. DHS would also provide Congress with an annual report on the department’s information sharing and cooperation with state election officials. Finally, 180 days ahead of each general election for federal office, the DNI would issue an assessment on the full scope of election threats posed by state actors, along with recommendations to address those risks. These regular assessments would be reinforced by a provision instructing DHS to provide timely threat information to state election officials. Threat assessments and information sharing are critical tools to identify, evaluate, and defend against authoritarian interference.
Furthermore, provisions in H.R. 1 would direct the president—in consultation with a range of federal agencies—to issue and implement a National Strategy to Protect United States Democratic Institutions. The strategy would review foreign threats to U.S. democracy, propose measures to shore up vulnerabilities, and recommend actions that can be taken with international allies and partners to better detect, deter, prevent, and respond to authoritarian interference. Finally, H.R. 1 would establish a Congressional commission to hold hearings, collect evidence, and report findings and recommendations to strengthen U.S. democratic institutions. These initiatives by the executive and legislative branches would help the United States defend against the multifaceted and evolving threat of foreign attacks on democratic institutions.
Lift Up Measures to Secure Democracy
H.R. 1 is large and complex, and it likely faces an uphill battle to secure the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate. But the bill includes important measures to secure U.S. elections and democratic institutions that lawmakers should continue to pursue. Provisions to harden election infrastructure, root foreign money out of politics, and set consequences for coordination with foreign powers should be raised above partisan considerations to secure the foundations of U.S. democracy.