Ohio state senators introduce bill to prohibit ballot measure contributions from foreign nationals

Ohio State Sens. Theresa Gavarone (R-2) and Robert McColley (R-1) introduced the bill, Senate Bill 215 (SB 215), on Jan. 24, 2024. SB 215 would prohibit foreign nationals from making contributions or expenditures regarding ballot measures, including indirectly through another person or entity. Likewise, campaigns would be prohibited from accepting contributions from foreign nationals.

Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) supports the legislation. Earlier in January, LaRose said “foreign nationals have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into 501(c) entities” supporting 2023’s Issue 1, which created a state constitutional right to abortion. He called on the Ohio State Legislature to “close [the] ‘foreign influence’ loophole in state campaign finance law.”

SB 215 would define foreign nationals to include the following persons and entities:

  • an individual who is not a U.S. citizen or national;
  • a foreign government;
  • a foreign political party; and
  • a person, other than an individual, that is organized under the laws of a foreign country or has its principal place of business in a foreign country.

Sen. Gavarone said, “For decades now, foreign nationals have not been able to contribute to the campaigns of candidates. [SB 215] basically expands that… to ballot issues, directly or indirectly.” In 2021, the Federal Election Commission (FEC), in a 4-2 decision, found that the existing federal ban on foreign political contributions concerns candidate elections, not ballot measure campaigns. In 2023, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-1) of Pennsylvania introduced House Resolution 4484 (HR 4484), the Keeping Foreign Money out of Ballot Measures Act of 2023. U.S. Rep. Jared Golden (D-2) of Maine joined as co-sponsor. The bill has not been referred to a committee as of Feb. 15, 2024.

Sen. Gavarone said the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which is based in D.C., received funding from “Georg Wyss, a Swiss billionaire, who, for some reason, wants to play a part in our elections.” In 2023, the Sixteen Thirty Fund contributed $13.4 million to ballot measure campaigns in Ohio. She also noted that Sixteen Thirty Fund is funding an initiative campaign to establish a redistricting commission. Marneé Banks, a spokesperson for Wyss’ Berger Action Fund, which provides funding to the Sixteen Thirty Fund, said the organization “prohibits its grants from being used to support or oppose political candidates or parties, or otherwise engage in electoral activities.”

Sen. William DeMora (D-25), responded to Republican Sens. Gavarone and McColley, saying, “Had your side prevailed [with last year’s ballot measures in Ohio], this bill wouldn’t have come to fruition, would it?”

In 2022, the Sixteen Thirty Fund provided $26.85 million to ballot measure campaigns across 10 states. The ballot measures addressed topics related to abortion, firearms, minimum wage, ranked-choice voting, and other election policies. The largest contribution was $11.26 million to the campaign supporting Michigan Proposal 2, which added several election and voting-related policies to the Michigan Constitution. In 2023, the Associated Press reported that tax returns, available from 2016, show that Wyss contributed $208 million to the Sixteen Thirty Fund.

Should SB 215 be enacted, Ohio would be the ninth state to approve a law prohibiting contributions to ballot measure campaigns from at least some foreign nationals. However, the definition of foreign national and the exact regulations are different from state to state. In Maine, for example, the law addresses foreign government and foreign government-owned entities but not individuals. In California, which has a ban on foreign contributions to ballot measure campaigns, the definition of foreign principal does not include permanent non-citizen residents. Georg Wyss, who Ohio Sen. Gavarone mentioned, lives in Wyoming. According to the New York Times, “[Wyss] has not disclosed publicly whether he holds citizenship or permanent residency in the United States.”

In 2024, bills related to foreign donations to ballot measure campaigns have also been introduced in Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. As of February 21, 2024, Ballotpedia had tracked 208 legislative proposals concerning ballot measures, initiatives, veto referendums, referrals, local ballot measures, and recall elections in 36 states during 2024 legislative sessions. A list of bills is available here.