Politics is a big part of life and the culture of the U.S. especially with the mid-term elections rapidly approaching. Whether you are engaged in politics or not it's always good to be aware of the rules surrounding what you can and can't do. In many cases about life abroad, you're just like everyone else, but in many ways we're very different – so what can you jump into this year?
I get swept up in politics. I'm carried away to a far off land of Twitter trolls and yelling, but I find it fascinating. You might be like me or you might be actively disinterested in it, and that's completely fine too, but you should always be aware of the rules.
You may have followed the news during the Presidential election seeing “intereference” and “contributions” by foreign governments hot button topics and wondered what it all meant, and maybe you even wondered whether it applied to you…. it does!
If you're sitting on the couch one day and see a person or an idea that you align with, are you allowed to make a donation or volunteer your time to that candidate or party?
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
That seems pretty cut and dry, but it's important that we dig a little deeper to understand exactly what a “contribution” is and what a “foreign national” is exactly.
So what is a “foreign national”?
Again, from the FEC:
- 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
- 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.
So this means that if you hold a green card, then you are no longer considered a “foreign national” and you don't fall into the rules above. You are free to make a donation to whomever you'd lke.
What about local or state elections?
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 politics, 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:
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.
They have listed a pretty wide number of things included in this cateogry and “anything of value” can especially be an important one for you to consider.
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.
Yell it from the rooftops. Or maybe wear a shirt that says “FOREIGN NATIONAL 4 <POLITICALPARTYY>”. You don't want this to be lost and get in trouble when you thought you were safe.
What can you do instead of donating?
For those of you who still feel like they want to contirbute to a cause but have now found out that they can't, what can you do?
My recommendation: 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!
Charities are a fantastic avenue, and there are lots of them. Look for confirmed “501(c)(3)” which basically means “legitimiate charity” and then use something like Charity Navigator to assess whether they're a cause that deserves your time and/or money.