Politics is a big part of life and the culture of the U.S. Whether you are engaged or not it’s always good to be aware of the rules surrounding what you can and can’t do. So here’s a really high-level summary.

You may be like me, a die-hard fan of watching every single coming and going of every single piece of news about the upcoming primaries and upcoming election.

You may also be actively disinterested in it, and that’s completely fine too!

You may have been following the news and seeing “intereference” and “contributions” by foreign governments as a hot button topic at the moment and wondered what it all meant, and maybe you even wonderred whether it applied to you.

So if you’re sitting on the couch one day and see something you like, are you allowed to pick up the phone or go online and make a donation as a national of a foreign country?

You can not make a donation as a foreign national, no.

Directly from the FEC (Federal Election Commission) who dictate rules about Federal elections in the US:

Who can’t contribute

Campaigns are prohibited from accepting contributions from certain types of organizations and individuals. These prohibited sources are:

  • Corporations, including nonprofit corporations (although funds from a corporate separate segregated fund are permissible)
  • Labor organizations (although funds from a separate segregated fund are permissible)
  • Federal government contractors
  • Foreign nationals
  • Contributions in the name of another

So that’s pretty clear but let’s do a little deeper dive for those of you really into the details.

So what is a “foreign national”?

Again, from the FEC:

Foreign national

  1. An individual who is not a citizen of the United States or a national of the United States and has not been lawfully admitted to the U.S. for permanent residence, as defined in 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(20); or
  2. A foreign principal, as defined in 22 U.S.C. § 611(b).

11 CFR 110.20(a)(3).

So it’s basically anyone that isn’t a citizen and who does not hold a Green Card (“Permanent residents”).

What about Green Card holders?

Well they apparently do not fall into the same bracket as those who have visas:

Individuals: The “green card” exception

The Act does not prohibit individuals with permanent resident status (commonly referred to as “green card holders”) from making contributions or donations in connection with federal, state or local elections, as they are not considered foreign nationals.

Hold a green card and you’re good to contribute as much as you’d like.

What about local or state elections?

The rules are very clear about this:

Campaigns may not solicit or accept contributions from foreign nationals. Federal law prohibits contributions, donations, expenditures and disbursements solicited, directed, received or made directly or indirectly by or from foreign nationals in connection with any election — federal, state or local.

Basically what this means is: If it’s an election, you cannot make any “contribution” to it as a foreign national.

What counts as a contribution?

This is a great question because it’s important to know that there’s more than just money that can count as a “contribution” to an election.

Again, I’m going to let their language do the talking:

Contribution

A gift, subscription, loan, advance or deposit of money or anything of value given to influence a federal election; or the payment by any person of compensation for the personal services of another person if those services are rendered without charge to a political committee for any purpose. 11 CFR 100.52(a) and 100.54.

So what about volunteering for a campaign?

Well, this starts to get a little technical (if it wasn’t already), but according to the FEC:

Generally, an individual (including a foreign national) may volunteer personal services to a federal candidate or federal political committee without making a contribution. The Act provides this volunteer “exemption” as long as the individual performing the service is not compensated by anyone.

The important thing is to always be very clear and upfront that you are a foreign national before getting involved and absolutely not making a contribution to the campaign.

What can you do instead?

Find a cause that adjacently supports what you believe in that doesn’t step too close to an election campaign!

Google things, look local, and find something you can spend your time and effort on!

Update (10/23): Thanks to Brendan M. for picking up a mistake in my foreign national section! Fixed!