Seattle, WA – The Seattle City Council voted today to pass a landmark campaign finance law that combats the influence of foreign corporate spending in city elections.
The legislation, introduced by Councilmember M. Lorena González, prohibits corporations from spending money in Seattle elections if they are foreign-influenced, defined as more than 1 percent ownership by a single foreign national or more than five percent ownership by multiple foreign nationals.
Free Speech For People has worked closely with Councilmember González and Fix Democracy First to help draft this legislation. The ordinance builds on Free Speech For People’s work developing similar legislation in St. Petersburg, Florida, which passed in November 2017, as well as proposed legislation in Massachusetts, Maryland, and New York City. Nationally-known experts in constitutional law, campaign finance, and corporate governance, including Professor Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School, Chair Ellen Weintraub of the Federal Election Commission, and Professor John Coates of Harvard Law School, joined Free Speech For People’s efforts. The ordinance also received support from the League of Women Voters of Seattle-King County.
While this legislation was pending, local election spending in Seattle garnered national attention ahead of the 2019 city council elections, where online retail giant Amazon contributed an unprecedented $1.5 million to the Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s super PAC. In addition to being one of the country’s largest companies, more than five percent of Amazon is owned by foreign investors in Europe and Asia; in fact, two of Amazon’s top ten investors are foreign banks. Political spending by Amazon and other companies that meet the legislation’s thresholds of foreign ownership would be prohibited under the proposed legislation.
“Seattle has become the largest and only second city in the country to pass legislation that stops foreign-controlled companies from using their influence as leverage to sway our democracy,” said Councilmember M. Lorena González. “Thanks to the ordinance passed today, the security of our electoral system is stronger. Building upon Seattle’s pioneering Democracy Voucher program, this legislation confirms Seattle’s ongoing commitment to a democracy by and for the people of this city. I’m honored to have worked with my Council colleagues, Seattle’s democracy protectors and our partners nationwide on this important legislation package.”
“The Seattle City Council’s passage of this model legislation marks a major victory for our democracy,” said John Bonifaz, President of Free Speech For People. “In Seattle, as in so many places, the corrupting influence of foreign corporate money in politics is not just a threat. It’s here and now. We congratulate Seattle for leading the way in addressing this threat and in protecting the integrity of its elections.”
The Supreme Court’s January 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC sanctioned political spending by corporate entities as political speech protected by the First Amendment on the claim that corporations are “associations of citizens.” As many major corporations are owned in substantial part by foreign shareholders, they can now circumvent federal law which explicitly prohibits foreign nationals from making any political expenditures in U.S. elections.
“Fix Democracy First is very happy to see this important legislation passed in Seattle,” said Cindy Black, Executive Director of Fix Democracy First. “We believe addressing foreign-influenced corporations and expanding transparency in elections will increase accountability and transparency, as well as create more voter confidence in our political process. We especially want to thank CM Lorena González for her leadership, and Free Speech for People for their guidance and legal expertise throughout this process.”
“Seattle’s law should spark a national movement to protect our democratic self-government. If what Seattleites call ‘the other Washington’ won’t lead, then Seattle will,” says Ron Fein, Legal Director for Free Speech For People.
For more information about the legislation, including letters of support and analysis from Professor Tribe, Commissioner Weintraub, Professor Coates, and others, visit: https://freespeechforpeople.org/seattle-legislation/Print