Who Regulates Campaign Finance?

In the realm of political elections, an important question lingers in the minds of many: Who regulates campaign finance? As political campaigns gain momentum, it becomes crucial to understand the mechanisms behind the funding and expenditure processes. In this article, we will explore the intricate web of regulations that govern campaign finance, shedding light on the entities responsible for overseeing and enforcing these rules. Whether you are a curious voter or a hopeful candidate, this comprehensive overview will provide you with the key insights you need to navigate the complex world of campaign finance regulation.

Federal Agencies

Federal Election Commission

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is the primary federal agency responsible for regulating campaign finance in the United States. Its main role is to enforce and administer the federal campaign finance laws, ensuring transparency and accountability in the electoral process. The FEC sets guidelines for campaign contributions, spending limits, and disclosure requirements for political candidates and committees. It also oversees the public funding program for presidential candidates who choose to participate in it.

Internal Revenue Service

While the FEC focuses on the regulation of campaign finance, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) plays a crucial role in monitoring the tax-exempt status of nonprofit organizations engaged in political activities. The IRS oversees the compliance of these organizations, such as advocacy groups and political action committees (PACs), to ensure they adhere to the rules and regulations surrounding political campaign finance. By monitoring tax-exempt organizations, the IRS helps maintain transparency in political activities and prevents the misuse of tax benefits for political purposes.

Department of Justice

The Department of Justice (DOJ) plays a vital role in enforcing and prosecuting campaign finance violations. It investigates and takes legal action against individuals, organizations, or campaigns suspected of violating federal laws surrounding campaign finance. The DOJ works closely with the FEC and other agencies involved in campaign finance regulation to ensure the integrity of the electoral process. Its enforcement actions aim to uphold the fairness and transparency of elections and deter any illegal or unethical campaign finance practices.

State Agencies

State Election Commissions

In addition to federal regulation, each state has its own agency responsible for overseeing campaign finance at the state level. State election commissions play a crucial role in administering and enforcing campaign finance laws within their jurisdictions. These commissions ensure compliance with state-specific regulations, including reporting requirements, contribution limits, and disclosure rules. State election commissions work to maintain the integrity of state elections by promoting transparency, fairness, and accountability in the campaign finance process.

State Ethics Commissions

State ethics commissions focus on monitoring and enforcing ethical standards in political campaigns. These commissions play a vital role in promoting fair practices, ethical conduct, and transparency in campaign finance. They set guidelines regarding conflicts of interest, disclosure of financial interests, and adherence to ethics codes for political candidates, elected officials, and campaign contributors. State ethics commissions ensure that individuals involved in political campaigns act with integrity, representing the interests of the public in a trustworthy manner.

State Law Enforcement Agencies

State law enforcement agencies are responsible for investigating and prosecuting campaign finance violations within their respective states. They work in conjunction with state election commissions and other regulatory bodies to enforce campaign finance laws and ensure compliance. These agencies have the authority to conduct investigations, gather evidence, and take legal action against individuals or organizations engaged in illegal campaign finance activities. State law enforcement agencies play a critical role in maintaining the integrity of the electoral process and upholding the rule of law.

Who Regulates Campaign Finance?

Advocacy Groups

Common Cause

Common Cause is a nonpartisan advocacy group that focuses on campaign finance reform and the promotion of government transparency. It aims to reduce the influence of money in politics by advocating for stricter campaign finance regulations, disclosure of political spending, and limits on political donations. Common Cause works to empower citizens by providing resources and tools to engage in the political process and hold elected officials accountable.

Public Citizen

Public Citizen is a nonprofit organization that advocates for campaign finance reform and the elimination of corporate influence in politics. It promotes transparency in political spending, fights against undisclosed political contributions, and supports measures to limit the influence of money in elections. Public Citizen actively engages in litigation, lobbying, and public education to bring attention to campaign finance issues and push for meaningful changes in the system.

American Civil Liberties Union

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) works to safeguard the First Amendment rights of individuals and organizations, including their right to participate in the political process. The ACLU supports defending free speech and fair political participation while also advocating for campaign finance regulations that prevent corruption and the disproportionate influence of money in politics. It engages in litigation and advocacy to protect both the integrity of elections and the constitutional rights of individuals and groups.

Supreme Court

Buckley v. Valeo

Buckley v. Valeo was a landmark Supreme Court case in 1976 that established significant principles regarding campaign finance regulation. The Court ruled that some campaign finance regulations, such as contribution limits and disclosure requirements, were constitutional and served to prevent corruption. However, it also held that spending limits violated the First Amendment protection of free speech. This case set the foundation for the distinction between contributions and expenditures in campaign finance law and greatly influenced subsequent court decisions and legislation.

Citizens United v. FEC

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is a highly significant Supreme Court case from 2010 that continues to shape campaign finance laws and political spending. The Court ruled that corporate spending on independent political broadcasts, including those related to political campaigns, is protected under the First Amendment as free speech. This decision allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money independently advocating for or against political candidates, leading to substantial changes in the campaign finance landscape.

McCutcheon v. FEC

McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, decided in 2014, focused on the aggregate limits on individual campaign contributions. The Supreme Court ruled that such aggregate limits, which limited the total amount an individual could contribute to federal candidates, parties, and PACs, violated the First Amendment. It held that aggregate limits did not serve a compelling government interest in preventing corruption and were thus unconstitutional. This case further shaped the landscape of campaign finance by increasing the opportunities for individuals to contribute significantly to multiple candidates and groups.

Who Regulates Campaign Finance?

Congressional Legislation

Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA)

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA) was a major piece of legislation that set the framework for federal campaign finance regulation. FECA established contribution limits, disclosure requirements, and public financing options for presidential candidates. It aimed to ensure transparency, promote fairness, and prevent corruption in federal elections. Although parts of FECA have been modified or superseded by subsequent legislation and court decisions, its provisions remain fundamental to the regulation of campaign finance in the United States.

Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA)

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) was enacted in 2002 to address perceived shortcomings in campaign finance regulation and curb the influence of large contributions on federal elections. BCRA introduced restrictions on soft money contributions to political parties, placed limits on electioneering communications, and increased the transparency of campaign financing. While some provisions of BCRA were impacted by later court decisions, it represented a key effort to regulate campaign finance by reducing the potential for corruption and increasing disclosure requirements.

McCain-Feingold Act

Also known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, the McCain-Feingold Act was named after its primary sponsors, Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold. This legislation aimed to reform federal campaign financing and address concerns about the influence of money in politics. The McCain-Feingold Act introduced restrictions on soft money contributions to political parties, regulated issue advocacy ads, and imposed further disclosure requirements. It represented a significant bipartisan effort to regulate campaign financing and promote transparency in federal elections.

Individual Donors

Donor Disclosure Requirements

Campaign finance laws at both the federal and state levels require varying degrees of disclosure from individual donors. These requirements vary depending on the amount and type of contribution, with stricter rules often applying to larger donations. Donor disclosure aids transparency, allowing the public to know who is contributing to political campaigns and provides a safeguard against potential corruption or undue influence.

Contribution Limits

Both federal and state campaign finance laws impose limits on the amount individuals can contribute to political candidates, parties, or PACs. These limits are intended to prevent the undue influence of wealthier individuals on the political process and to ensure fairness for candidates without access to large sums of money. Contribution limits can vary widely depending on the jurisdiction and the type of donation, such as individual donations, donations to political parties, or independent expenditures.

Independent Expenditures

Independent expenditures refer to political spending made by individuals or groups that are not associated with a candidate’s campaign. These expenditures often involve advertising, direct mailings, or other forms of communication that advocate for or against political candidates. While individuals have the right to engage in independent expenditures as a form of political expression, there are regulations in place to ensure transparency and prevent coordination with candidates or campaigns that could potentially circumvent contribution limits or disclosure requirements.

Political Parties

Party Coordination with Candidates

Political parties play a significant role in supporting their candidates during campaigns. However, regulations govern the degree to which parties can coordinate with candidates to prevent the circumvention of contribution limits or other campaign finance restrictions. While parties can provide support and resources to candidates, they must do so while adhering to guidelines that ensure the independence and integrity of candidates’ campaigns.

Party Fundraising and Spending

Political parties engage in fundraising to support their activities, including campaign activities on behalf of their candidates. Federal and state campaign finance laws dictate how parties can raise and spend money to prevent corruption and maintain transparency. Regulations include contribution limits to political parties, disclosure requirements for party expenditures, and restrictions on the use of soft money or corporate funds. These regulations aim to ensure fair and competitive elections while minimizing the potential influence of money on the political process.

Public Financing

Presidential Election Campaign Fund

The Presidential Election Campaign Fund is a public financing program operated by the federal government. It provides matching funds to eligible presidential candidates who agree to specific limitations. Participating candidates must abide by spending limits and disclose their contributions and expenditures. The Presidential Election Campaign Fund aims to reduce the influence of private money in presidential elections and promote fair competition by offering public funding options for candidates who choose to participate.

State and Local Public Financing Programs

In addition to the federal program, several states and local jurisdictions have established public financing programs for state and local elections. These programs provide public funds to eligible candidates who meet specific requirements, such as collecting a threshold number of small-dollar contributions. State and local public financing programs aim to reduce the influence of private money in elections at the state and local levels, enable broader participation in the political process, and reduce the potential for corruption.

Foreign Influence

Foreign Nationals and Campaign Contributions

Campaign finance laws prohibit foreign nationals from making contributions or expenditures in connection with federal, state, or local elections in the United States. These regulations are in place to safeguard the integrity of the electoral process and prevent the potential for foreign interference. Foreign nationals include individuals who are not U.S. citizens, as well as certain foreign corporations or organizations. The prohibition on foreign campaign contributions ensures that elections are conducted with the interests of U.S. citizens in mind and prevents potential undue influence from foreign entities.

Foreign Lobbying and Electioneering

The regulation of foreign lobbying and electioneering activities also plays a significant role in campaign finance oversight. Lobbying refers to efforts made by foreign agents or entities to influence government officials or policymakers on behalf of a foreign government or organization. Similarly, electioneering refers to attempts by foreign entities to influence U.S. elections, such as through advertising or other communication efforts. Regulations surrounding foreign lobbying and electioneering aim to prevent undue foreign influence on the electoral process and ensure the integrity of U.S. elections.

Enforcement and Penalties


Investigations of potential campaign finance violations are conducted by various agencies, including the FEC, IRS, state election commissions, and state law enforcement agencies. These investigations may be triggered by complaints, suspicious activities, or routine audits. Investigative bodies have the authority to examine financial records, interview individuals, and collect evidence to determine if any violations have occurred. Investigations play a crucial role in maintaining the integrity of the campaign finance system and uncovering any potential illegal or unethical activities.


Audits are conducted to ensure compliance with campaign finance laws and regulations. The FEC, IRS, state election commissions, and other regulatory bodies may audit candidates, political parties, PACs, and other entities involved in political campaigns. Audits involve a thorough review of financial records, disclosure statements, contribution reports, and other relevant documents. By conducting audits, regulatory bodies can identify any discrepancies, ensure accurate reporting, and detect any potential violations that may require further investigation or penalties.

Fines and Penalties

Campaign finance violations can result in fines and penalties imposed by regulatory bodies or through legal proceedings. The severity of penalties varies depending on the nature and extent of the violation. Fines may be levied against individuals, organizations, or campaigns found guilty of violating campaign finance laws. In some cases, penalties may also include the requirement to repay any funds obtained through illegal means, restitution, or other forms of legal recourse. Fines and penalties serve as deterrents, raising awareness of the consequences of non-compliance and maintaining the integrity of the campaign finance system.

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