This page is a part of NCSL’s comprehensive campaign finance portfolio. For related resources, visit the Campaign Finance Overview page.
In 1757, George Washington spent about $195 for food and drinks to help win election to the Virginia House of Burgesses. This practice of using money or gifts to influence the outcome of an election would soon be abolished by the Virginia Legislature, and whether or not to regulate money in campaigns has remained an important issue for legislators ever since.
All 50 states regulate in some manner the way money is spent and raised to win elections, with a goal of providing accountability and transparency in this area.
Using money to influence elections is seen by many as a natural extension of an individual’s freedom of speech. Others are troubled by allowing unlimited money to flow in politics because they believe money can have a corruptive influence on candidates or elected officials. State legislators wishing to change their state’s campaign finance laws must be sensitive to these separate views, while adhering to the principles set forth by Supreme Court decisions that further alter the role of money in politics.
This page provides an overview of commonly used methods to regulate campaign finance, as well as influential court decisions that helped shape this regulation. To see a list of campaign finance bills that legislators have introduced from 2015 and beyond, see NCSL’s Campaign Finance Legislation Database.
How Do States Regulate Campaign Finance?
Because the federal government leaves elections largely up to the states, the methods used by each state to regulate campaign finance vary dramatically. The three most common methods are discussed below:
- The imposition of disclosure and reporting requirements.
- Setting contribution limits to candidate’s campaigns.
- Providing a method for the public financing of elections.
The most common means of regulating political spending is through disclosure and reporting requirements. All 50 states mandate that candidates report the contributions they receive and the expenditures they make while pursuing public office. This area of campaign finance is constantly evolving, so please see NCSL’s Campaign Finance Legislation Database for examples of laws that deal with disclosure requirements.
To learn more about disclosures during elections, see Disclosure and Reporting Requirements.
The second-most common means of regulating money in elections is through the imposition of limits on the amount of money any group or individual can contribute to a campaign. This area has grabbed the most attention, with recent Supreme Court cases bringing contribution limits to the forefront.
To learn more about how states regulate the amount of money that can be contributed to campaigns, see the Campaign Contribution Limits Overview.
Public Financing of Elections
A third method states use to regulate spending in elections is by providing a means by which candidates can accept public funds to conduct their campaigns, primarily through matching contributions or through clean elections programs. These approaches mirror the federal public financing option, which was established by the Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1974. If a candidate opts into one of these programs, they agree to not raise a certain amount in contributions, and can only spend on their campaign an amount established by the state. In return, the government will partially or fully fund their campaign.
To learn more about public financing programs offered by states, see the Public Financing of Campaigns Overview.
Campaign Finance and the Supreme Court
Decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court are binding on states and may force state lawmakers to adapt their policies and laws. Rulings from other federal and state courts also dramatically impact campaign finance, but their impacts are geographically limited.
To learn more about some of the most important Supreme Court decisions on Campaign Finance, see Campaign Finance and the Supreme Court.
If you don't find the information you need, please contact the NCSL elections team at 303-364-7700 or use the email content form at left. NCSL staff can do specialized research for legislators and legislative staff.