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What's an Election Cycle? Depends Where You Are

By Austin Graham  |  June 26, 2014

Pundits and politicians alike loosely use the term “election cycle” to reference the applicable time period in which elections occur. But in the campaign finance realm, the precise meaning of election cycle can determine both when candidates can receive contributions, and affect which election—primary or general—the contributions will count toward.

For congressional elections, an election cycle begins the day after a primary or general election, and ends on the day of the next primary or general election for that office. For example, the 2013-2014 general election cycle for a U.S. House district began Nov. 7, 2012 and will end Nov. 4, 2014. At least seven states have chosen to emulate the federal definition of election cycle, including HawaiiMichigan and South Carolina.  

Many states have not embraced the federal definition of election cycle, opting instead for alternative meanings of the term. At least eight states define an election cycle as beginning Jan. 1 following an election and ending Dec. 31 of the next election year. In states such as MinnesotaNorth Carolina, and Virginia, the 2013-2014 election cycles began Jan. 1, 2013 and will end Dec. 31, 2014.

Moreover, some states utilize wholly distinctive definitions of the term. For instance, California’s election cycle begins 90 days before an election and ends on the date of the election. Colorado’s election cycle starts 31 days after a general election and ends 30 days after the next general election for the particular office. Similarly, Vermont’s election cycle begins 38 days after the previous general election and concludes 38 days after the subsequent general election for that office.

More than half the states, whether incorporating the federal definition of election cycle or an alternative usage, divide the primary and general elections for the purpose of computing contributions.

For example, in Kansas, the “primary election cycle” begins Jan. 1 following a general election, and ends after the primary election for that office. The “general election cycle” then begins the day after the primary and lasts through the end of the election year. State candidates can accept maximum contributions from a single contributor during both the primary and general election cycles, but are prohibited from allocating contributions given during the primary election cycle toward the general election. Candidates in states such as Kansas thus have a strong interest in discerning the exact meaning of election cycle, as it can influence how they raise and spend campaign money.

Alternatively, some states do not limit contributions by election or election cycle at all. At least five states employ annual limits that restrict contributions to a certain amount per calendar year. Alaska allows an individual to contribute a maximum of $500 to a single candidate per calendar year. Massachusetts also has an annual contribution limit of $500 for individuals. Annual contribution limits offer states a straightforward alternative for regulating political spending.

Austin Graham is an intern covering campaign finance for NCSL.

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