Current Laws for Campaign Finance
Excerpted from The League of Women Voters of California Education
Fund, Choosing the President - 1992 (New York: Lyons and Burford,
1992), p. 123-125.
Click here to go to the
National League of Women Voters Homepage.
Copyright © 1992 by The League of Women Voters of California Education
- The Provisions
- Federal regulation
- Expenses of local party organizations
- Independent spending
- Lowest-unit rule
- Political action committees (PACs)
- Equal time
- Taxpayer checkoff
- Matching funds during primaries
- Limits on contributions
- Multicandidate committees
- Federal funding of national conventions
- Spending limits
- Federal funding of general election campaigns
- Commentary: The Effect of Campaign Financing
- Presidential Nominations
- The General Election
Since Congress started legislating the financing of national elections,
a number of provisions have come and gone. The provisions no longer on the
books have either been superseded by congressional action or been declared
unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
The following provisions regulating presidential campaigns, listed in order
of the progress of the nomination and general election campaigns, are still
on the books. The provisions are followed by a reference to the appropriate
legislation or ruling. When one year's amendments superseded previous law,
both citations are listed.
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is the federal agency responsible
for enforcement of campaign laws (Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971
[FECA], amendments of 1976).
Presidential candidates must file regular reports listing campaign contributions
and expenditures (1971). Donors of $200 or more must be listed on the reports
(1971,1979 amendments). Any organization spending more than $5,000 on campaigns
must establish formal political committees (FECA 1971,1979). Those reports
go to the FEC (1974,1976 amendments). Candidates must establish a single
organization for their campaigns (1974). The name of the candidate must
be listed on campaign materials (1979).
Expenses of local party organizations
Certain expenses, such as get-out-the-vote drives and voter education activities,
do not have to be reported (1979). Up to $1,000 in voluntary services, such
as lending a home for meetings and lodging, do not have to be reported as
contributions ( 1979).
Independent spending of $250 or more must be reported to the FEC (1971,1979).
Organizations without formal ties to campaign organizations do not have
to adhere to spending limitations (1974).
Broadcasters can charge campaigns only as much as they charge other advertising
clients for spot commercials (1971).
Political action committees (PACs)
Corporations and labor unions may establish separate units to promote political
ends and not be in violation of federal prohibitions on direct contributions
Broadcasters selling or giving time to a federal candidate must provide
equal time to the candidate's campaign opponents (Section 315 of the Federal
Communications Act). Typically, this law gives spokespersons for both parties
a chance to respond to the remarks of the other. After a State of the Union
address, for example, a representative of the other party delivers a statement.
Hollywood movies featuring Ronald Reagan were not permitted to be aired
on television during his 1976,1980, and 1984 campaigns because of this provision.
Citizens may indicate on their tax forms that they would like $1 ($2 for
joint filings) of their tax money to be put into the Presidential Election
Campaign Fund. This fund has been used to help finance nomination and general
election campaigns (1971).
Matching funds during primaries
Candidates may receive federal matching funds if they raise at least $100,000
in 20 or more states. Each of those states must contribute a total of $5,000
to the candidate in individual donations of $250 or less ( 1974) .
Limits on contributions
Citizens may contribute only $1,000 to each primary or general election
campaign, a total of $25,000 to federal candidates overall, and $20,000
to committees of national parties (1976). Candidates may spend only $50,000
of their own or their family's money on their campaigns if they accept federal
funding ( 1971,1976).
Multicandidate committees- most commonly PACs-may contribute only $5,000
per candidate and $15,000 to committees of the national parties (1976).
Federal funding of national conventions
The parties receive $3 million each for their summer conventions (1974,1979).
Candidates receiving federal matching funds may spend limited amounts during
the nomination season and other limited amounts in each of the states (state
limits are determined by population). The limit in 1976, the first year
this provision was in effect, was $10 million; the limit has been adjusted
to account for inflation.
Federal funding of general election campaigns
The federal government offers the nominee of the major parties equal sums
of money for the general election campaign. Candidates who accept the money
may not raise or use additional campaign funds. The figure was $17 million
in 1976; the amount has been adjusted each election year according to the
inflation rate (1974).
The Effect of
Campaign Finance Legislation
on Presidential Campaigns
Richard A. Watson
Excerpted from Richard A. Watson, The Presidential Contest
(Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1988).
here to go to the Congressional Quarterly's American Voter Home Page.
Copyright © 1988 by Congressional Quarterly, Inc.
Presidential Nominations (p.20)
The General Election (p. 66-67)
Campaign Finance Rules Governing Presidential
Like the alteration in delegate selection rules, campaign finance legislation
has had a significant effect on presidential nominations. The sources and
techniques for raising funds have radically changed. Rather than depending
upon a few "fat cats" to finance their campaigns (in 1968 insurance
executive W. Clement Stone gave $2.8 million to Richard Nixon's campaign),
candidates now raise funds from a large number of small individual contributors,
primarily through direct mail solicitation. [N.B.: Although Political Action
Committees can help finance nomination campaigns, their contributions are
not matched by federal funds as are those of individuals.]
Public funds also make it possible for persons who formerly could not afford
to mount a nomination campaign to do so. Sen. Fred Harris had to abandon
a presidential bid in 1972 because he could not raise money from large contributors;
but with federal matching funds available, he was able to run in 1976. Moreover,
even single-issue Right to Life candidate Ellen McCormack was able to qualify
for federal funds that year.
At the same time, the new method of raising funds from a large number of
individuals and thereby qualifying for federal matching money means that
candidates tend to start their campaigns earlier than they formerly did.
Finally, as election specialist Herbert Alexander suggests, public funding
also helps "free each candidate's personal organization from the party
hierarchy." [Alexander, <I>Financing Politics</I>, p. 98]
Campaign Finance Rules Governing the General
The legal provisions for financing the general election differ considerably from those governing presidential nominations. For the general election, complete public financing is provided to nominees of the major parties (those that won 25 percent or more of the popular vote in the last presidential election). In the 1984 presidential election, the federal government gave each candidate $40.4 million and each national committee $6.9 million. But to be eligible for that money, nominees must agree not to accept other contributions to their campaign. Candidates of minor parties (those that won between 5 and 25 percent of the vote in the previous election) receive partial public financing. Candidates of parties ineligible for public financing (those that won less than 5 percent of the vote in the previous election) can be partially reimbursed after the current election if they receive at least 5 percent of that vote.
Two provisions of the campaign finance law permit the major party candidates to benefit from campaign expenditures besides those they make themselves from public funds. As is true of the nomination process, there is no limitation on independent campaign expenditures, that is, those made by individuals or political committees that advocate the defeat or election of a presidential candidate but that are not made in conjunction with the candidate's own campaign. (Again, however, such individuals and committees must file reports with the Federal Election Commission and must state under penalty of perjury that the expenditure was not made in collusion with the candidate.) In addition, an amendment to the campaign finance law enacted in 1979 permits state and local party organizations to spend money for any purpose except campaign advertising and the hiring of outside personnel; this means that they can engage in grass-roots activities such as distributing campaign buttons, stickers, and yard signs, registering voters, and transporting them to the polls to vote.
Thus, like the provisions for financing presidential nomination campaigns, those governing the general election have brought significant changes in the funding of fall presidential campaigns. The two major party candidates no longer need to depend on wealthy contributors and other private sources to finance their campaigns. (They may still benefit, however, from the independent expenditures of such sources as well as from grass-roots activities by state and local parties.) The law also has the effect of limiting and equalizing the expenditures made by the two major party candidates, which is a distinct advantage for the Democrats because, historically, Republican presidential candidates have spent more than their opponents. Finally, the law benefits the candidates of the two major parties, who receive full public financing of their general election campaigns, in contrast to minor party candidates, who are entitled to only partial financing, if any at all.
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