Campaign finance law regulates the funding, advertisement, accounting, and procedures involving campaigns; the organized efforts to achieve a political goal. Federal elections must abide by numerous types of limitations on contributions and reporting obligations intended to balance between first amendment rights and providing an open election. Broadly, campaigns must report every donation to the campaign, can only receive limited amounts from each individual and organization, and can be supported indirectly through independent spending. Federal campaign finance is governed by a complex interaction between: the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), key Supreme Court cases including Citizens United, and regulations imposed by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). States and cities also have their own set of election statutes and rules that must be abided by for fundraising and other forms of campaigning for non-federal offices.
Management of Funds
When receiving contributions and other forms of donations, Federal campaigns must abide by registration, disclosure rules, and other guidelines on management of resources. Campaign secretaries or authorized agents must deposit every receipt of donation no matter the source within 10 days, or else the donation must be returned. The information from every receipt must be stored, reported to the FEC, and must include specific information such as the names of donors. Campaigns may receive loans from banks and other entities but must treat such loans as contributions until paid off. Other rules apply to situations like: resolving debt disputes, loans from candidates themselves, or receiving potentially illegal contributions. For more information, see this FEC for Candidates and Authorized Committees.
Contribution Limits to Campaigns and Parties
One of the main areas of campaign finance law are the limitations on the contribution amounts that each individual, national political party, state/local political party, Political Action Committee (PAC), and other organizations can contribute to specific candidates per election (primaries are considered separate elections). The amounts vary each election cycle. In the 2023-2024 election cycle, individuals are limited to contributing $3,300 to candidates, $5,000 per year to PACs, and $41,300 to National Party Committees. PACs and political parties also have specific contribution limitations to candidates and each other. To see the most current contribution limits, see this FEC chart. One exception is that candidates may spend unlimited amounts of their own funds on their campaign.
Limitations On Outside Election Advertisements
Another important set of campaign finance laws regulate how organizations not connected with a campaign can advertise in an election. Traditional PACs that contribute directly to candidates or any entity that coordinates with campaigns are considered making contributions against their limits when advertising for or against a specific candidate in an election, and they may not do so on television close to an election. However, individuals, political parties, super-PACs, businesses, unions and other organizations may spend unlimited amounts on advertisements that specifically mention candidates in an election as long as they remain independent from the political campaigns (referred to as independent spending). Independent spending also includes funds targeting specific issues, promoting policies, and registering voters. Additionally, super-PACs (PACs that do not contribute directly to candidates), 527 Committee Political Organizations, and 501c4 Social Welfare Organizations can receive unlimited amounts of donations from anyone.
[Last updated in April of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]