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February 12, 2008
Are Foreigners Financing our Presidential Campaigns?
Ed Lasky points us to this shocking article in the New York Sun that shows the utter futility in trying to enforce current campaign finance laws.
A very large number of people - numbering in the hundreds of thousands - have contributed to both Democratic and Republican campaigns online. As long as the amount donated is $200 or less, it doesn't have to be itemized. This means the donation can come from anyone, anywhere.
According to an analysis being released today by a Washington think tank, the Campaign Finance Institute, Senator Obama of Illinois led the pack with such small and secret donations, pulling in about $31 million during 2007. Some candidates actually make it easy for foreigners to donate:
Rep. Ron Paul ran second in small gifts, raking in more than $17 million. At the end of the year, Senator Clinton and John Edwards, who has since dropped out, were essentially tied for third in unitemized, small contributions, with each candidate raising about $11 million.
Advocates of tighter campaign finance controls said the notion behind excusing donations of under $200 from the reporting requirements was that the sums were insignificant from an ethical perspective.
"The idea is, it is too small an amount to worry about in terms of you're not going to buy significant influence or access for $200," a spokeswoman for Common Cause, Mary Boyle, said.
However, one area of concern with the flood of donations, particularly those made online, is that foreigners could be weighing in illegally in an American election. Mr. Obama's Web site allows donors to choose an address in one of 227 possible countries or territories, including Iran, Iraq, Zimbabwe, and Yemen. Evidently Hillary Clinton has the most cautious approach, informing those on her website if they live abroad and wish to donate that only mailed contributions will be accepted.
Mr. Paul's site is even more embracing, permitting addresses in Syria and the "Occupied Palestinian Territories." Michael Huckabee's Web site seems to require an American address to make a gift. Donors to Senator McCain need to put in a ZIP code of some sort, but not a state.
While it is a crime for most foreigners to donate to American campaigns at the federal level, those with so-called green card status can donate legally, as can Americans who live abroad.
Given Obama's huge appeal overseas, legitimate questions can be raised as to whether all of that $31 million he raised in January came from American citizens.
But since current law doesn't require any record keeping for the vast majority of his individual donations, I guess we'll never know.