Column: Defend Our Democracy ordinance means limiting big money and foreign influence in elections can start right in St. Petersburg

Published June 20, 2017

At its Thursday morning meeting, the St. Petersburg City Council will discuss and vote on chairwoman Darden Rice's innovative Defend Our Democracy ordinance. If enacted, this ordinance will help protect St. Petersburg's elections from the big money and the foreign influence that is causing so much consternation in Washington, D.C., where I sit on the Federal Election Commission.

St. Petersburg's timing couldn't be better. Since I traveled to St. Pete last October to testify in favor of this ordinance, Americans' faith that we control our own elections has been deeply shaken. Reports of foreign interference in the 2016 elections are truly alarming. Just last week, Bloomberg News reported the shocking news that Russia made incursions into the voter databases and software systems of 39 states.

Congress and the Federal Election Commission are trying to get a handle on this attack on our democracy. In fact, later on Thursday morning in Washington, I will be engaging my FEC colleagues in a discussion about what exactly the commission can do to identify what happened, ensure it doesn't happen again, and assure the American people that they, and not some hostile foreign power, are in charge of our democracy.

Hopefully we will have more success dealing with these foreign threats to our political system than we have had in addressing the threat posed by unlimited contributions in our elections. We in Washington have made no progress in damming (or even channeling) the river of unregulated super PAC money that has flooded into our elections since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision. This flood threatens to drown out the voices of America's voters at every level. We've seen plenty of super PAC spending in congressional and presidential races since 2010, and it has damaged our democracy by making candidates and elected officials indebted and attentive to moneyed interests.

And now this river of money is beginning to flow into local races, where it can do even more harm. The Brennan Center for Justice examined the role that unregulated "dark" money is having at the local level. In the six states they studied, before Citizens United, in 2006, 76 percent of the outside spending was fully transparent. But by 2014, the Citizens United effect had kicked in, and just 29 percent of the outside spending was fully transparent. This is corrosive. When voters don't know who's paying for their elections, they lose faith in the integrity of their government. This is true whether the money is coming from undisclosed mega-donors or secretive foreign sources.

You probably shouldn't bet the rent on Congress and the FEC solving these problems. The good news is that in the face of campaign finance gridlock at the national level, cities and states are taking the lead.

That's where the Defend Our Democracy ordinance comes in. I take special interest in the provisions regarding foreign money, which have sprung from a legal theory I developed last year.

In a nutshell: Citizens United blew open the floodgates to allow corporations to spend unlimited sums in our elections. But ironclad federal law prohibits foreign nationals from directly or indirectly spending in our elections at any level. So it's still illegal for foreign nationals to contribute through any sort of corporation. But when a corporation spends in politics, no one is asking, "Does any of your money come from foreign nationals?"

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Under the Defend Our Democracy ordinance, St. Petersburg will begin to ask corporations that question. Any corporation that wants to spend money to influence St. Petersburg elections must certify that it is not "foreign-influenced," that is, either (1) more than 5 percent owned by a single foreign national, (2) more than 20 percent owned by more than one foreign national, or (3) a corporation in which foreign-national owners call the shots on its political activities.

This is a simple, common-sense requirement, one fully backed up by federal law. It is the kind of reform that is only happening at the local level in the current political climate. It is the kind of disclosure that has been upheld in court over and over again. It is the kind of law that will protect the citizens of St. Petersburg and bolster their faith in their elections.

It is the kind of law that local legislators pass when they are really looking for innovative ways to make government work for their constituents. What I like best about it from where I sit is that this law will echo beyond St. Pete's borders and serve as an example, showing the way for other local, state and (fingers crossed) federal lawmakers who are serious about tackling the problems facing our democracy.

Ellen L. Weintraub is a member of the Federal Election Commission. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.