FEC draft opinion rules politicians can donate to foreign elections

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Body shot of woman in gray suit.
Rep. Maxine Waters has asked the FEC about the permissibility of donating to foreign candidates.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) considered four draft advisory opinions Thursday, all stating that the commission would allow U.S. politicians to contribute money from their authorized committee’s campaign, leadership PAC and/or personal funds to candidates competing in foreign elections.

These drafts come in response to a July 14 inquiry by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who asked the FEC if it was permissible for her to use funds from these resources to donate to Haiti’s elections. The drafts appear to differ only in the case law cited for reaching the decision, not the actual decision.

The FEC intends to vote on these drafts soon to issue a formal advisory opinion on the matter. We’re continuing to monitor developments at the commission and will update this story once commissioners vote on these proposed advisory opinions.

Haiti held its first parliamentary elections in three years on Aug. 9, but violence overshadowed the event, contributing to closed polls and low voter turnout. The country hopes to hold repeat and run-off elections on Oct. 25.

We previously posted in July about the inquiry made by Waters, who has represented the 43rd District of California for 13 terms. Her congressional page lists Haiti as one of her key issues. It’s unclear in her letter which candidate she would be supporting.

In the proposed decisions considered by the FEC during their regular commission meeting, the attorneys wrote that law only states that campaign funds cannot be converted to personal use. It suggests the commission already provides a nonexhaustive list of what is considered personal use; when an expense falls outside of those lists, the FEC reviews the expenditure on a case-by-case basis to determine whether it constitutes personal use.

When reviewing those situations, the draft states the FEC looks at those through the lens of a “long-standing opinion that candidates have wide discretion over the use of their campaign funds.” The law allows candidates to transfer funds to other campaigns and that, in this case, the transfers would be similar to a candidate transferring funds to a nonfederal election, like a state or local race or the election of someone in a territory like Puerto Rico.

Additionally, the draft would advise Waters could use her own personal funds to donate to candidates in Haiti. Under U.S. law, candidates cannot accept contributions from foreign nationals. In Waters’ case, she would be giving money to a foreign national, not accepting money from one, so the commission ruled that was permissible. However, one of the drafts being considered does assert that Waters would only be able to contribute if it is permissible under Haiti’s law.