Reforms proposed in the SHIELD ACT to limit foreign financial contributions in the 2020 election are insufficient to protect electoral integrity. Foreign agents have other political tools at their disposal.
With the 2016 election still fresh in the minds of American voters, foreign intervention remains a pressing concern ahead of Election Day this November. The SHIELD Act, recently passed by Congress but backlogged in the Senate, aims to close several loopholes abused by Russian agents to assist the Trump campaign and to widely spread misinformation. At its core, the bill would increase the transparency behind campaigns’ interactions with foreign governments and would place restrictions on the financial contributions allowed by foreign nationals  . Yet the SHIELD Act could be revised to better address another sinister aspect to foreign intervention: changing the narrative of the campaign cycle for an ally’s gain.
When thinking about domestic elections, there are two important areas where foreign actors can enter. These include campaign finance and public perceptions of the candidates. Although both tend to be interconnected, the two can stand on their own, as evident in the past four years.
Foreign intervention as a financial tool
According to the Mueller report, Russian tampering in the 2016 election was “sweeping and systematic.” A major part of this interference involved targeted ad campaigns, orchestrated and financed by Russian agents. Using a team of expert hackers, Russian operatives successfully infiltrated state databases in order to improve the placement of their advertisement . Members of the Trump team also abetted in the proliferation of data by handing over non-public campaign information to Russian intelligence affiliates . Taken together, this data mining and promotional output can be interpreted as a coordinated marketing campaign by the Kremlin, similar in principle to Super PACs and dark money . The SHIELD Act guards against this activity by introducing new regulations on how campaigns can converse with foreign nationals and on social media advertising practices. Yet this does not encompass the totality of methods for foreign intervention .
Foreign intervention as a narrative tool
Even more recently, Trump was accused in 2018 of abusing “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country” . According to a whistleblower report, Trump allegedly asked the Ukrainian President to leak information on Hunter Biden’s financial dealings in exchange for military aid (totaling $391 million). With this deal, the Trump team hoped to craft a negative perception of the Biden family to leverage on the campaign trail.
Whereas foreign financial assistance is identified and combatted in the SHIELD Act, the same recognition is not extended to limit the administrative powers foreign collaborators can levy to sway public opinions. In other words, it is fairly easy for nations to change foreign policies in order to spark political discussions favorable to an allied candidate. We should be concerned that international factors can hold such a large sway over domestic political mediums, especially if these channels are insufficiently protected and provide a direct line to the public’s ear .
This playbook is not specific to the Trump campaign. During the 1968 Presidential election, members of the Nixon campaign secretly conspired with South Vietnamese officials to slow down peace talks with North Vietnam in exchange for future political favors. In what is now known as the “Chennault Affair,” Nixon successfully stalled the peace deal, effectively undermining the credibility of Democratic incumbents he faced in the election .
Like President Trump, Nixon never faced legal repercussions, or even significant backlash from voters, for violating electoral and diplomatic integrity. While this may seem surprising, studies suggest that voters willingly exchange democratic norms for preferable policy goals more readily than we might expect. Although people assume that the American public is a robust check against would-be authoritarians, in reality, candidates that take undemocratic positions are only punished by 11.7% of the electorate; this number drops to 3.5% when accounting for the current level of polarization in the United States . These low political punishments translate to negligible legal repercussions for undemocratic candidates, since there lacks a political will – beyond partisan animus – to initiate prosecution. In the case of President Trump, his impeachment and later Senate acquittal were passed on heavily partisan lines. It is evident that we cannot rely on our current legal framework or social norms to guarantee electoral integrity. A stronger SHIELD ACT could change that fact for good.
Criticisms of the SHIELD Act
Despite the apparent need for expansive safeguards against foreign intervention in American elections, there are several criticisms leveraged against the SHIELD Act as it is currently written.
First, the White House threatened to veto the bill on the grounds that it is redundant and overly restrictive. The bill’s “expansive definitions seem designed to instill a persistent fear among Americans engaged in political activity that any interactions they may have with a foreign national could put them in legal jeopardy,” a spokesperson stated . This argument fails to recognize that the current legal system is already incapable of punishing clear violators of electoral integrity. Former candidates have abused their interactions with foreign actors to a high degree without being held accountable. The SHIELD Act is an important first step in restricting foreign power and holding cavalier politicians accountable for their actions.
Another case made against the SHIELD Act relates to a concern for free speech. According to the ACLU,
“The breadth of the SHIELD Act’s new prohibitions on foreign nationals’ speech and the subjective nature of the standards to be applied will place outright bans on truthful, nonmisleading, constitutionally protected speech by persons located within the United States. They will also impede the rights of U.S. citizens to receive critical, truthful information about the world from certain speakers.” 
Although it is true that the SHIELD Act would place some limits on speech for foreign nationals, we must again consider the place that these additions should hold in relation to the electoral process. Discussing the Paris Climate Accord is important, for example, but would constitute an act of interference if a foreign nation purposefully subsidizes related advertisements on American media platforms in the midst of the electoral process. Even if accidental, this speech would apply an external pressure on the narrative and framing of candidates to the benefit of foreign actors and their allies.
Unless the SHIELD Act is expanded and passed by the Senate, our electoral integrity will remain in grave danger to foreign tampering. It is sadly evident when observing American political history that some politicians will not hesitate to abuse their positions to invite foreign interference into our elections. President Trump is not the first to do so, nor likely the last. “House Democrats Introduce SHIELD Act to Combat Foreign Interference in American Elections,” Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, October 10, 2019, https://www.acslaw.org/projects/the-presidential-investigation-education-project/other-resources/key-findings-of-the-mueller-report/  Sue Halpern, “Why Would Paul Manafort Share Polling Data with Russia?,” New Yorker, January 10, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/why-would-paul-manafort-share-polling-data-with-russia  Uri Friedman, “Here’s What Foreign Interference Will Look Like in 2020,” The Atlantic, August 9, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/08/foreign-election-interference-united-states/595741/  “The SHIELD ACT of 2019,” Committee on House Administration: Zoe Lofgren, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-49800181  Ellen Lust and David Waldner, Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding, 2015. Washington, DC: USAID  John A. Farrell, “When a Candidate Conspired With a Foreign Power to Win an Election,” Politico, August 6, 2017, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/08/06/nixon-vietnam-candidate-conspired-with-foreign-power-win-election-215461  Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik, “Democracy in America?: Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States,” American Political Science Review 2020  “House Democrats Pass Bill to Prevent Foreign Interference in Elections, and Trump Threatens to Veto it,” CBS News/AP, October 24, 2019, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/house-democrats-pass-bill-to-prevent-foreign-interference-in-elections-trump-veto-today-2019-10-24/  “ACLU Letter Expressing Significant First Amendment Concerns Re; The SHIELD ACT (H.R. 4617),” ACLU, Written to Rep. Zoe Lofgren and Rep. Rodney Davis, October 16, 2019, https://www.aclu.org/letter/aclu-letter-expressing-significant-first-amendment-concerns-re-shield-act-hr-4617