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What is Campaign Finance?

Campaign finance is the raising and spending of money intended to influence a political vote, such as a candidate, political party, policy, or referendum.

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Federal Campaign Finance Laws

Federal Campaign finance laws regulate the use of money in federal elections. They regulate the sources, recipients, amounts, and frequency of contributions to political campaigns, and the purposes for which donated money may be used.

Federal Election Commission (FEC)

The FEC is an independent regulatory agency that administers and enforces the federal campaign finance law for campaigns for the U.S. House, Senate, Presidency, and Vice Presidency. The FEC’s mission is to protect the integrity of the federal campaign finance process by providing transparency and fairly enforcing and administering federal campaign finance laws.

The FEC was created in 1975 by the United States Congress. The commission comprises six members who serve six-year terms. Commissioners are appointed by the president, advised by the United States Senate.

The FEC has a wide array of information on the public record including:

  • Individual contributions - Database of individuals who have made contributions to federally registered political candidates

  • Candidates - Nationwide statistics on federal campaigns to help the public and researchers understand how candidates compare with national and state trends and rankings.

  • PACs, parties, and committees - Summary financial figures

  • Commission activity - Commission documents and actions such as open meeting agendas, closed audit reports, recent and ongoing rulemakings, press releases, and court case summaries.

  • Election dates - A list of primary dates and ballot access dates for those running for President, Senate, and House

  • FEC Reports of Financial Activity - A collection of FEC publications on financial activity from 1976-1994.

On the FEC website, users can browse campaign finance data, such as looking up contributions from specific individuals or finding elections by state and ZIP code. The FEC also has spending charts, such as raising and spending summaries for presidential candidates.

Raising Summary

Spending Summary

Types of Groups:

  • Political action committee - an organized group for raising and spending money to defeat and elect candidates.

  • Separate segregated funds (SSF) which can only solicit contributions from individuals associated with connected or sponsoring organizations

  • Nonconnected committees are not sponsored and can solicit contributions from the general public.

  • Super PAC - can raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, and can spend unlimited sums to advocate for or against a political candidate. Super PACs must file regular reports with the FEC.

  • Social welfare group - a civic league or organization not organized for profit but exclusively for promotion of social welfare. Net earnings are devoted to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes. Social welfare groups are regulated under Section 501(c)(4) of federal tax code, and are not required to disclose their donors.

Types of Spending:

  • Communication costs - primarily applied to unions, trade groups, and other member organizations. When communications of these groups expressly advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified federal candidate, directly associated costs must be reported to the FEC.

  • Hard money - Money given directly to a political candidate. These contributions are regulated by the FEC.

  • Independent expenditure - Money spent on political advertising in support of or against a candidate that is not coordinated with a candidate’s campaign.

Soft money - Money given to a political party with no limits attached to the amount that can be received. These contributions cannot be used to advocate for the election or defeat of a particular candidate.