Campaign Finance and Rules


The landscape of campaign finance has changed dramatically in the past decade. The landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) Supreme Court decision in 2010 overturned restrictions on independent spending on political campaigns by corporations and labor unions. It paved the way for the creation of Super PACs, a type of political action committee that can raise and spend unlimited money. They cannot donate directly to a campaign or political party, but they can spend money independently for or against a candidate.

Super PACs typically receive large donations from a relatively small number of donors, which can include corporations, unions, and other nonprofits. Super PACs spent a record $1.4 billion in the 2016 election cycle. This represents more than one-fifth of total spending that year. Critics argue that super PAC fundraising undermines the limit on direct contributions to federal candidates. They worry that super PACs have outsized access to and influence over political leaders, which could lead to government corruption.

Other court decisions have further loosened restrictions on donations to candidates. For example, the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in McCutcheon v. FEC further heightened these concerns when it struck down long-standing aggregate limits on contributions to candidates, allowing a single donor to contribute more than $3.5 million in a two-year election cycle, compared with $123,200 previously.

These practices can have a particular impact on lower-profile congressional races and even more so in state and local elections. This is because comparatively small spending in such campaigns can have a large impact on the result of an election or a ballot initiative. Moreover, the donor may have a direct economic stake in the outcome.

Following the Citizens United ruling, campaign funding has also become less transparent. A Brennan Center for Justice study found that only 29 percent of outside spending was fully transparent in 2014, compared with 76 percent in 2006. This is in part due to increased spending on the part of “dark money” groups, which do not disclose their donors. In 2006, dark money accounted for $5.2 million in spending. By 2012, it accounted for over $312 million in spending. In 2018, dark money spending totaled $148 million. Super PACs that accept donations from other Super PACs—a phenomenon known as “gray money”—have added to the difficulty in tracking spending. A Brennan Center for Justice analysis of outside spending in six states found that dark and gray money together accounted for nearly 70 percent of all outside spending in 2014. In response, several states have extended disclosure rules to organizations that donate money to super PACs.

Although the Citizens United decision approved the use of disclaimers in advertisements to inform the voting public, advertisements currently include misleading or benign-sounding names. To combat that vagueness, some states have required disclaimers to list the top five funders of each political ad. At the federal level, however, legislation to modernize disclosure rules has stalled in Congress and attempts to enforce existing rules has left the FEC largely deadlocked.

One encouraging trend in campaign finance is the success of public financing systems at the state and local levels. These programs match small individual contributions with public funds. In return, candidates promise to limit spending and private fundraising. Public financing is currently available for presidential candidates in both primary and general elections. However, almost no major party candidates have taken it in recent years. This is because doing so limits fundraising ability. There is no such program for Congressional candidates.

Public financing systems can increase the proportion, number, and demographic/class diversity of small donors. They also encourage campaign volunteering in legislative districts. Campaign financing programs also make it easier for candidates who are not independently wealthy to run for office. These programs allow legislators to spend more time engaging with constituents. And they help ensure policies align more closely with public preferences rather than toward wealthier interest groups or individuals.


Public funding

In this policy: FederalLocalState

Policymakers should enact and update public financing systems for elections to ensure qualified candidates can run for office.  This includes increasing matching funds, particularly for small-dollar donations.

Campaign funding for federal, state, and local elections, including judicial elections, should rely more on small donations matched with public funds at a multiple ratio and less on large private donations by individuals or organizations.

Media and advertising

In this policy: FederalState

Qualified candidates should receive free or significantly discounted media spots and postage for mailings. Providing airtime should be a condition for renewal of broadcasters’ television and radio licenses.

Policymakers should require greater transparency, clarity, and honesty in all election advertising. They should require more meaningful disclaimers that reveal the identity of an ad’s sponsor and  provide the names of top donors. They should also put in place strict penalties for false advertising.

Campaign contributions

In this policy: FederalState

Governments should set and strictly enforce limits on individual donations, joint fundraising, and bundled contributions to campaigns.

Contributions to PACs should face the same limits as individual contributions.

Congress and the FEC should tighten and enforce rules prohibiting coordination between candidates and super PACs.


In this policy: FederalLocalState

Federal, state, and local governments should maintain strong penalties for violations of campaign finance. They should have sufficient resources and authority to conduct audits, adjudicate and sanction cases, file injunctions, litigate independently, and respond to complaints promptly. The IRS and the FEC should enforce the laws mandating that political activities ofADLs or Activities of Daily Living are the basic tasks of everyday life, such as eating, bathing, dressing, toileting, and transferring. IADLs or Instrumental Activities of Daily Living are activities related to independent living and include preparing meals, managing money, shopping for… 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations not be the primary activity of such groups.

Independent, nonpartisan state commissions charged with enforcing state campaign finance and election laws should have greater funding and authority.

Disclosure requirements

In this policy: FederalLocalState

Government should increase disclosure requirements for all funds spent on elections or ballot initiatives. This includes identifying funders and the amounts they provide. Timely and full disclosures should occur prior to the election. States should consider creating online public databases with information on campaign contributions to candidates for state offices and ballot initiatives.

Disclosure requirements should include organizations that donate to spender organizations, including nonprofits.

Corporations, unions, and other outside groups should disclose their campaign-related expenditures to shareholders and members. They should also be required to make their political spending records available in a timely manner to the public.

States should require disclosure of independent expenditures in state elections.

Disclosure requirements should be imposed on joint fundraising and bundled campaign contributions.