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How to Navigate Campaign Finance Laws as an Independent

2 min read
Campaign Finance
Good Party Politics Team · Jan 30, 2024

Successfully navigating campaign finance laws as an independent candidate requires a thorough understanding of legal requirements. The legal limitations and restrictions imposed by federal, state, and local legislatures and municipal codes can be complex. 

Luckily, we’re here to walk you through some of the most important campaign finance considerations:

Understanding Campaign Finance Laws

Campaign finance requirements vary depending on the level of office you are running for. A candidate running for president will have different regulations to contend with than a candidate running for city council. Below, we’ll go through the requirements for each level of government, starting at the top:

Elections for Federal Officials

Federal campaign finance law includes a detailed set of restrictions, limitations, and requirements. These rulings concern money spent and money or gifts contributed during federal elections. The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) stipulates statutory provisions that govern federal campaign finance. However, several rulings by the Supreme Court and lower courts have had a definite impact on the regulatory reach of the Act.

FECA controls campaign regulations in the following three ways:

  • Contribution limits

  • Source restrictions (limitations on who is permitted to make contributions)

  • Disclosure and disclaimer requirements

FECA sets a distinction between a campaign contribution and an expenditure. While a contribution is defined as money given to a candidate’s campaign, an expenditure is money spent for advocacy of a candidate’s election or defeat. In general, the Supreme Court has a record of upholding set limits on contribution amounts and nullifying limits on expenditures.

Starting in 2003, a succession of Supreme Court decisions has rendered multiple FECA provisions invalid. These provisions had been established as part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA). Later, in a piece of 2010 legislation, the Court nullified a long-term prohibition concerning independent expenditures financed by corporate and labor union treasuries.

In a piece of 2022 legislation, considering recent developments in election procedures, the Supreme Court rendered invalid a BCRA provision setting a cap on a candidate’s loan repayment using contributions made following an election. The decision of the Justices was based on Constitutional Considerations. The Court has typically overturned similar provisions, deeming them unconstitutional violations of First Amendment protections of free speech.

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Elections for State Officials

Across the United States, state election boards are responsible for the enforcement of campaign finance laws. State regulations are also comprehensive, including contribution limits, disclaimer and disclosure requirements, reporting regulations, and prohibited contributions due to source restrictions. Candidates must report accurate records of all campaign contributions and expenditures for acceptable political campaign compliance.

Campaign contributions must comply with legal contribution limits and current Constitutional Considerations for Legislation as set by the state legislature. Contributions limitations can also vary according to the donor category. For example, contributions limits might be different for donations by an individual or by a political action committee (PAC). 

Corporate entities and foreign nationals may not contribute to a candidate’s political campaign in the United States due to current source restrictions.

All candidates are urged to have a strong, valid political campaign compliance plan that includes disclaimer and disclosure requirements in any state election. Political candidates often rely on appointed compliance officers to ensure compliance standards. A compliance officer can also perform ongoing reviews of campaign finance reports. This can help greatly in determining and correcting a report’s inaccuracies or omissions.

Elections for Local Officials

Local election boards set rulings for municipal elections, and both party-affiliated and independent candidates for office must typically comply with the same requirements. Yet, the influence of political parties is quite significant. 

The prominent parties typically play a large role in determining the candidates who will run for state legislative positions. This presents a major challenge to independent candidates, often becoming a serious obstacle to their candidacies.

The major political parties can also limit the number of candidates running for the state legislature as they lobby for Constitutional Considerations for Legislation. This power gives them a platform for influencing an entire state of voters with their particular political agenda. Under these circumstances, more residents tend to cast their votes for the party’s favored candidate. They may vote for the party rather than another candidate whose ideology they are more closely aligned with.

Attempting to mount and maintain a successful campaign in this type of hostile environment may cause an independent candidate to overlook important aspects of their campaign. For instance, they may neglect the overseeing or handling of contribution or independent expenditure records while they are preoccupied with recent developments. Errors may be made in recording this data, which may cause the candidate major problems later on. Compliance with essential campaign requirements may become lax, resulting in serious legal allegations or charges. These charges may concern violations of current laws and Constitutional Considerations for Legislation.

Key Campaign Finance Laws for Independent Candidates

Local elections for federal, state, and municipal offices are all governed by important laws with amendments based on Constitutional Considerations. Compliance with these rulings is mandatory for all candidates, both party-affiliated and independent. Many laws have been passed by federal, state, and local legislators concerning varied aspects of campaign requirements. 

Among the most important campaign finance laws for independent candidates to understand fully and comply with are the following:

#1: Laws Governing Major Aspects of Campaign Operation and Compliance

While running political campaigns, independent candidates must ensure that they have a complete understanding of campaign finance laws and compliance requirements relative to recent developments in election procedures. These regulations demand and protect accountability, fairness, and transparency in financing political campaigns. A lack of attention to these requirements can result in serious criminal charges or fines.

With due diligence and compliance concerning all campaign finance legislation, candidates can best run a strong, successful campaign. Independent candidates must be especially careful to follow all compliance requirements throughout their campaigns and to honor disclosure requirements.

#2: Complying with Disclosure Obligations and Reporting Requirements

Federal Election Commission (FEC) rules stipulate that all federal campaigns on the local level must file scheduled reports revealing their contributions and group or independent expenditures. These reports must align with disclosure requirements. This enables the public to view the flow of money during the campaign. The law holds campaigns accountable for the validity of this data. The contents and filing frequency required for these reports vary according to the related election cycle and campaign type. Primary election campaigns mandate more frequent reports than campaigns for general elections. Each contributor’s name, address, and occupation must be recorded carefully.

Aside from federal requirements, campaigns must be compliant with state and local finance laws, and some states require more data than others. For instance, the amounts of contributions and expenditures that must be reported can start at any amount from $50 to $1,000 in different states. You must consult the campaign finance laws for your specific location to ensure that your campaign is compliant. You should also review compliance rules for prohibited contributions.

In addition, FEC regulations state that campaigns must file a 48-hour notice within two days after accepting a contribution greater than $1,000 during an election campaign. These records are required to state the donor’s name, address, occupation, and the exact amount of the donation. Any in-kind donations (like goods or services) must also be disclosed in the report.

#3: Practicing Accountability and Transparency in Campaign Fundraising

When you keep an accurate, updated record of all campaign fundraising, your reports will be accurate and transparent. Political campaigns and candidates can be held responsible for any fundraising activities that violate campaign finance law. Yet, you can avoid these problems with strong political campaign planning.

An essential practice is adhering to the regulations concerning donation limitations and independent expenditures. These limits may differ according to the type of political organization, the election level, and the contributor’s affiliation to the campaign. The limitation on contributions to a federal election candidate is $2,900 per election if from an individual. Yet, political parties are allowed to accept as much as $35,500 each year from individuals.

Political organizations must practice caution to avoid receiving contributions from unauthorized sources, as stated in their disclaimer and disclosure requirements. Generally, corporations, labor organizations, and foreign nationals are forbidden to contribute to federal campaigns or PACs. In addition, donations are required to be made from funds of the donor rather than from funds obtained from another individual or organization.

Free Tools to Empower Your Campaign

As an independent candidate, you may face unique challenges in navigating campaign finance laws. Good Party offers free, advanced tech tools designed to help level the playing field. With the help of the AI Campaign Manager and support from our team of battle-tested experts, you can skip the costly step of hiring a financial officer, accountant, or financial manager and get straight to the financial guidance you need. Book a demo today and see the difference our free tools can make in your campaign!


Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

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Campaign Finance
By Good Party Politics Team
The GoodParty.org politics team is focused on transforming the political landscape by promoting transparency, accountability, and positive change. They aim to engage citizens in the political process, encourage informed decision-making, and support candidates who prioritize the common good. Their mission revolves around creating a more fair and just political system, fostering collaboration, and breaking down traditional barriers of partisanship.