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States Chart Their Own Paths on Campaign Finance Regulations

By Wendy Underhill and Christi Zamarripa  |  October 13, 2022

More than $550 million. That’s how much has been raised so far for this year’s state legislative races. According to Open Secrets,  a website that tracks donations, spending varies significantly by state, from $6.9 million in South Carolina to $79.7 million in California. Whether viewed as a guaranteed right of free speech or a corruptive influence on elections, money is a driving force behind political campaigns.

With 6,279 state legislative seats up for a vote in November, candidates are focused on following their state’s campaign finance laws. When the winners take office, though, they’ll become responsible for setting those very same laws and policies.

All states regulate the way money is raised and spent in elections, but the specifics vary. To help lawmakers understand their state laws in relation to others, NCSL has launched Campaign Finance Regulation: State Comparisons, a web resource that examines laws related to contribution limits, disclosure requirements, public financing, digital political communications, use of campaign funds, foreign contributions, reporting requirements, and contributions using cryptocurrencies. The comparisons illustrate the many options available for states, whether the goal is to tighten or loosen campaign finance regulation.

Highlights include:

  • Contribution Limits: Forty states limit individual contributions to state legislative candidates, and those limits range widely. In Ohio, the contribution limit is $13,704, while in Colorado, it’s $200. Federal candidates are prohibited from accepting corporate contributions, but 28 states allow state candidates to take them. Limits vary from $12,000 in Illinois to $425 in Maine.
  • Digital Political Communications: Political advertising has exploded, with close to $700 million spent on digital ads so far this year. But old campaign finance laws, designed for print ads, don’t always translate well with new media. Since 2018, 11 states have introduced bills related to digital or online ads, with five enactments. Virginia, for example, added new definitions to its political campaign ad laws, while Washington amended existing definitions to include digital communications.
  • Campaign Funds for Child Care: There has been a steady increase in candidates, both male and female, seeking to use campaign funds for child care, with 24 states now allowing candidates to use funds for that purpose. Some states made this change through legislation (Minnesota was the first to do so, in 1993), while others have done it through advisory boards or commissions (see the Texas Ethics Commission’s advisory opinion).
  • Cryptocurrencies: Even though the Federal Election Commission has allowed cryptocurrency donations since 2014 for federal races, only 14 states permit the same. Some states, such as Tennessee, have statutory laws, while others, including Colorado, have adopted rules updating laws to keep pace with technology. Louisiana, for example, just this year adopted a resolution to study issues related to cryptocurrencies and campaign contributions.

Want to know more? Visit NCSL’s new campaign finance webpage for details.

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