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Campaign Finance Legislation, 2021–2022

Running a successful political campaign is how politicians are elected to public office, and to do this requires a large amount of money. The people who help politicians fund their campaigns, and thus help them get into office, often expect to hold some influence over what policies the elected official supports as a return for their investment in the politician’s campaign. This is why campaign finance policy has been a subject of debate since before the creation of the United States.


Despite this, the first federal campaign finance law wasn’t passed until 1867 when the Naval Appropriations Bill prohibited the solicitation of money from naval yard workers by government employees—this policy was expanded by the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 to all federal civil service workers, who had previously been expected to make campaign contributions to keep their jobs.


As a result of a series of laws passed in the first half of the 20th century that prohibited labor organizations from contributing to federal candidates’ election campaigns, unions and labor associations began to create Political Action Committees (PACs) in order to bypass contribution restrictions.

Political cartoon by Etta Hulme, 1995 (Image rights to University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, Special Collections)

With the passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, Congress limited the amount candidates could contribute to their own campaigns as well as how much could be spent on federal campaign advertising. The law also required campaigns to file quarterly disclosure reports of contributions and expenditures in addition to laying the basic legislative framework for PACs. Because previous campaign finance reforms had been difficult to enforce, the 1974 amendments—the Federal Election Campaign Act was also amended in 1976, 1979, and 2002—created the Federal Election Commission (FEC), an independent agency responsible for administering and enforcing federal campaign finance laws, which is still in operation today.


The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, also known as the McCain–Feingold Act after its sponsors, amended the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to limit the use of soft money in elections as well as issue advertising. Soft money refers to donations used to influence elections in ways other than contributing directly to a candidates’ campaign, allowing the money to not be subject to campaign finance laws. The legislation also barred corporations and unions from using their treasury funds to run issue advertisements, or political ads about a federal candidate broadcasted within 30 days of a primary election or within 60 days of a general election.


In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations and outside groups were no longer limited in their spending in elections since restricting independent political spending would violate the right to freedom of speech. An earlier U.S. Supreme Court case in 1976, Buckley v. Valeo, set the precedent of political campaign contributions being a protected form of freedom of speech.


The Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act of 2021 was introduced in Congress last year with the intention of increasing transparency in election finances and combating the influence of dark money in political campaigns. In a vote on September 22, 2022, the Senate failed to pass the DISCLOSE Act after not reaching the necessary 60 votes to end debate and advance the legislation. The bill had been previously passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010 (see here) but failed in the Senate twice in 2010 (see here) and 2012 (see here); it was also introduced in Congress several times between 2011 and 2020 without success.

Dark money refers to spending meant to influence political elections where the source of the money is not disclosed. According to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks money in U.S. politics and its effects on elections and public policy, dark money groups have spent roughly $1 billion (mainly on television, online ads, and mailings) to influence elections in the decade following Citizens United v. FEC (2010).


At the state level, there are different campaign finance disclosure laws and practices. One way states regulate campaign finances is by setting limits on how much money different groups can contribute to a politician’s campaign. This can include different limits for individuals, state parties, PACs, corporations, and unions in each state. Alabama, Iowa, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, and Virginia don’t cap how much an individual or group can contribute to a candidate, while other states prohibit corporations and unions from contributing to political campaigns.


To ensure contributions comply with state law, every state requires some form of disclosure and reporting of campaign contributions. Typically, a political candidate must register with their state’s election administration agency, maintain receipts from contributions and expenditures, and report them by specific dates which vary by state. Most states require candidates to submit this information electronically to enable it to be published online for the public.


Laws regarding campaign finance passed during 2021 and 2022 are organized below by state. Click the links under your state to see how campaign finances are regulated differently than during the 2020 election cycle.


Alabama

Arizona

Colorado

Delaware

Idaho

Missouri

Montana

North Dakota

Tennessee

Texas

Wyoming


Vote Smart partners with OpenSecrets to provide every American with the facts on campaign finance.


This was written by Katie Thompson and Ashley Peldiak. Katie is the director of Officials Research at Vote Smart, with a degree in political science and sociology from Iowa State University and a specialization in demography. Ashley is a communications associate at Vote Smart, with a degree in English and experience creating and editing content for various mediums including social media.

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