Campaign Finance Laws: An Overview

7/17/2015

state campaign finance lawsIn 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, but it remains an important issue for today’s legislators. All 50 states regulate the way money is spent in politics and elections, publishing entire code sections dedicated to providing accountability and transparency in this area. The cost of elections and campaigns continues to rise, and candidates are forced to rely on contributions from the private sector to fund the ever-increasing costs. Seen by many as a natural extension of an individual’s freedom of speech, using money to influence elections troubles those who believe money can have a corruptive influence on candidates. 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 in 2015, see NCSL’s 2015 Campaign Finance Legislation Database.

Please visit NCSL's Campaign Finance Table of Contents for a complete list of all our campaign finance webpages.

How Do States Regulate Campaign Finance?

As there is no right answer to the question of how large a role money should play in politics, there are many methods used to regulate campaign finance. The three discussed below are the most common. These methods include 1) the imposition of disclosure and reporting requirements, (2) setting contribution limits to candidate’s campaigns, and 3) providing a method for public financing of elections. Because the federal government leaves elections largely up to the states, the methods used by each state varies dramatically.  To learn more about types of restrictions imposed by states, follow the links below each subheading.

Disclosure

The most common means of regulating political spending is through various disclosure and reporting requirements. All 50 states mandate that candidates for elective office 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 2015 Campaign Finance Legislation Database for examples of laws, introduced this year, that deal with disclosure requirements.

To learn more about disclosure during elections, please follow this link.

Contribution Limits

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 of the campaign finance debate.

To learn more about how states regulate the amount of money that can be contributed to campaigns, please follow this link.

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 campaign. This approach mirrors the federal public financing option, which was instituted by the FEC in 1974. If a candidate opts into this program, he or she makes certain promises to not raise private capital, and can only spend on their campaign an amount established by the state.

To learn more about public financing programs offered by states, please follow this link.

Campaign Finance and the Supreme Court

Though legislators have no say in how the Supreme Court interprets campaign finance laws, the Court’s decisions force lawmakers to adapt to the changing legal landscape. This page outlines some of the most important Supreme Court decisions on Campaign Finance, with emphasis on how states have adapt to the rulings of the nation’s highest court. Rulings from other federal and state courts also dramatically impact campaign finance, but their impacts are geographically limited and not included in this page.

Additional Resources

About This Project

The content for this webpage was created by Brian Cruikshank from William and Mary Law School, in coordination with NCSL's staff.

If you don't find the information you need, please contact our elections team at 303-364-7700 or elections-info@ncsl.org. NCSL staff can do specialized searches for legislators and legislative staff.