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Washington — A new bipartisan bill in Congress aims to close loopholes that allow foreign actors and governments to purchase digital, television or radio ads to influence U.S. elections. 

The bill, introduced Wednesday by Reps. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, and Elise Stefanik, R-New York, comes days after special counsel Robert Mueller's probe said Russia clearly interfered in the 2016 presidential election

The legislation responds to concerns specifically about Russian influence in social media ads, some containing anti-Muslim messages, that were intended to sow discord and disproportionately targeted Michigan in 2016, among other states.

Slotkin said that "in an ideal world," lawmakers would have taken immediate steps to close the loopholes after U.S. intelligence agencies declared a year and a half ago that Russian attempted to influence the election.

"Unfortunately, that didn't happen, said Slotkin, a former Pentagon official. "We're having a whole debate that politicizes things like this. It was left open for 2018, and I just don't believe it should be left open for 2020." 

"It doesn't matter if you're a Democrat or Republican or Independent. I don't think anyone wants foreign entities, foreign organizations or foreign individuals buying ads in our political process."

Foreign governments and foreign nationals can't directly donate to U.S. campaigns under election law, and Slotkin said they also shouldn't be able to buy ads to influence those campaigns by supporting or opposing a candidate.

She noted "countless" examples of "extremely nasty, divisive ads" on Facebook that specifically targeted Michigan in 2016.

"They were meant to divide us as Michiganders, as Americans, and it was part of the Russian playbook to try and create discord among Americans, distract them and ultimately have influence on the election," Slotkin said.

"That has no part in our democracy. It makes me a little sick to my stomach to think about foreign entities being able to legally buy ads right now. And so I thought this was something that had meaning and was practical." 

Slotkin serves on the House Armed Services Committee with Stefanik and said other Republican members have also signaled their support for her legislation.

The measure is similar to Slotkin's amendment adopted last month as part of the House Democrats' campaign finance reform package. 

She is working with Senate colleagues on a companion version of the bill, which is called the Preventing Adversaries Internationally from Disbursing Advertising Dollars Act, or PAID AD Act.

In addition to barring foreign governments, nationals and corporations from buying campaign ads on television, radio or online that support or oppose a candidate, the bill would expand the ban on so-called electioneering or issue communications to cover paid digital communications, as well as broadcast and cable ads. 

The legislation also would block foreign governments from buying a campaign ad that discusses a national legislative issue of public importance during an election year for the purpose of influencing an election.

mburke@detroitnews.com 

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