No matter how you feel about it, there’s no doubt that campaign finance in America can be very complicated and confusing. The laws surrounding it change all the time, and so do the legal setups and workarounds that campaigns and outside groups use to spend money on elections. The amount of dark money spent so far for 2016, for example, is dramatically outpacing the amount spent at the same point in 2012.
So, to help you (and us) keep track of all these terms, loopholes, organizations, court cases, IRS designations and so on (and on and on), we created this handy campaign finance 101 glossary – written in a way that hopefully everyone can understand. We’ll be updating it with new terms and as new developments in campaign finance occur, so check back often.
Click a letter below to jump to that section. Each term has a “Link” at the end that will bring you to that specific entry if you’d like to share it as well.
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501(c) group: These are nonprofit groups regulated by the IRS that are tax exempt. The amount of political activity each group can engage in varies based on its type under the tax code. Every nonprofit must file Form 990s, public disclosure documents that detail basic information – such as revenues, expenses, leadership roles and more – but don’t reveal individual donors and often are released months or years after the time period they cover.
There are four kinds of relevant 501(c) groups – (c)(3), (c)(4), (c)(5) and (c)(6); check out this data visualization Sunlight created to see the complex disclosure requirements each 501(c) organization has, and this OpenSecrets chart contains more information. Read more on each individual type below. (Link)
- 501(c)(3): A 501(c)(3) is a nonprofit group dedicated to educational or research purposes (the Sunlight Foundation is one example). These organizations are prohibited from being involved in any political activity or campaigns – such as lobbying or making independent expenditures – but they can do “voter education” activities, like registering voters. Often, a 501(c)(3) will be connected to a related 501(c)(4) group, which can engage in some political activity – Americans for Prosperity, Planned Parenthood and the NRA all have both 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) groups. (Link)
- 501(c)(4): Also known as “dark money groups,” these make up some of the most relevant political nonprofits today. Technically deemed “social welfare organizations,” these groups can’t have political activity – such as making ads advocating for or against candidates – as their “primary purpose”; this has unofficially been interpreted to mean they must spend less than 50 percent of their activities on politics or elections. But they can raise unlimited amounts of cash from individuals and organizations alike – without having to disclose who contributed that money. Here’s a disclosure form for Crossroads GPS, a conservative 501(c)(4) that spent more than $120 million on the 2012 elections – note the $22.5 million donation with no name attached. One thing to keep in mind when trying to track the political activity of these groups: (c)(4)s that spend money directly advocating for or against a candidate (an independent expenditure) or make electioneering communications must report that to the FEC.
Despite the unwritten rules, many 501(c)(4)s do engage in significant political activity, and since the Tea Party targeting scandal a few years ago, the IRS has been very timid about regulating this; in 2016, they are expressly forbidden from issuing new rules on political activity that would enable them to regulate it. To determine which activities constitute “social welfare,” the FEC has little guidelines and will only look at each case on an individual basis.
A common practice in the post-Citizens United world is to link a 501(c)(4) to an affiliated super PAC. This allows the super PAC to receive unlimited amounts of money without the true donor being revealed. They also can share staff and other resources, like American Bridge 21st Century and American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, a liberal super PAC and its affiliated 501(c)(4), respectively. (Link)
- 501(c)(5): These are labor organizations, encompassing unions and agricultural organizations, and they’re regulated by the Department of Labor. They are tax exempt and may engage in political activity if it isn’t their primary purpose. They have to disclose donors who give more than $5,000 to the Department of Labor. Most unions use affiliate PACs and super PACs to spend big money on politics, which do have to disclose their donors. (Link)
- 501(c)(6): These are trade associations and business leagues, like the Chamber of Commerce or the American Medical Association. They’re tax exempt, don’t have to disclose donors and can spend money on political activity and lobbying as long as it isn’t their primary purpose. (Link)
527 group: 527 groups are tax-exempt groups that specifically engage in elections at the state or federal level. Unlike 501(c) organizations, they do not have to show any purpose other than politics, such as charity or social welfare. (As such, 501(c)(4) organizations sometimes give money to 527s.) They’re very similar to super PACs: They can accept unlimited donations, including from corporations and unions, and spend unlimited amounts; but, unlike super PACs, they can’t engage in explicit advocacy (ads that say “vote for,” for example). And unlike 501(c)s, they do have to disclose their donors to the IRS. These features make super PACs and 501(c)(4)s generally more popular now.
So who sets up 527s in today’s political climate? It’s a particularly popular form with national groups that engage in state politics, such as the Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association. Although 527s cannot coordinate or contribute with federal candidates, these groups can and do give money directly to local candidates. (Though each state has distinct and specific guidelines that 527s must follow.) They have a number of other advantages, too: They disclose donor information to the IRS, not the FEC, which is slower to report; they can accept unlimited contributions; and they can help donors get around federal contribution limits, because McCutcheon v. FEC wiped out the limit on aggregate campaign contributions.
Unlike super PACs, 527 committees can be created openly by federal candidates and officeholders. But those figures can only solicit funds that are permissible under federal law. For example, Scott Walker, when he was technically not a federal candidate, created his testing-the-waters committee as a 527. Other candidates used multi-candidate PACs or super PACs, which had to either abide by federal contribution limits or maintain the fiction that their sponsors were not actually exploring presidential runs. Some created 501(c)(4) organizations that had to maintain the proposition that they were simply devoted to promoting political ideas and social welfare. (When someone actually becomes a federal candidate is still a murky and unresolved area of campaign finance law). (Link)
Ad buy: An ad buy is when a campaign purchases time for a particular advertisement on TV, radio or the Internet. So, if a campaign spends $300,000 on airtime (on certain channels, or on a certain program) for an ad, that might be called a $300,000 ad buy. There are two ways to figure out the size of ad buys. First, outside groups like super PACs have to file notices of independent expenditures (over a certain dollar amount) with the FEC within 48 hours, Here’s an example of a Right to Rise buy from December; this one’s especially helpful because it shows how much the agency who bought the ads for Right to Rise made from this particular buy, under “Agency commission.”
You can use Sunlight’s Ad Sleuth tool to get the latest information on political ads purchased at television stations around the country. These files are extra important because they provide the only information we have on who’s behind some of the shadowy groups pouring money into the election. (Link)
Buckley v. Valeo: This 1976 court case struck down limits on the total amount a campaign could spend, as well as limits on candidates using their own money for campaigns, but upheld individual contribution limits. (Link)
Bundler: Individuals can only donate a maximum of $5,400 to a candidate per election cycle ($2,700 for primary and general elections), but campaigns often benefit from bundlers. These are usually wealthy, connected individuals who round up checks from other wealthy, connected individuals. Bundlers who are registered lobbyists are required to report what they’ve collected to the FEC, but many people in Washington who do activities the rest of us would think of as lobbying manage to avoid registering as a lobbyist. Some campaigns have voluntarily released information about their bundlers – last year, the Jeb Bush campaign released a list of those who bundled more than $17,600, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign released the names of the “Hillblazers” who had raised more than $100,000. (Link)
Citizens United v. FEC: Citizens United was a landmark Supreme Court case that allowed corporations and unions to make unlimited independent expenditures on elections. This, combined with Speechnow.org v. FEC – which eliminated contribution limits from individuals to outside groups – created super PACs as we know them. (Link)
Contribution limit: These are the limits on contributions to candidates and political groups from individuals, organizations, political committees and so on. The FEC details them here. As of 2016, the limit on contributions from an individual to a campaign is $2,700 per election. See also: McCutcheon v. FEC. (Link)
Coordination: Although many super PACs exist solely to promote the candidacy of one individual, it’s illegal for super PACs to “coordinate” with that campaign. But what that actually means is pretty narrow, in practice, and campaigns find ways to get around this. So, for example, even though a campaign can’t directly send footage of their candidate to a super PAC, they can upload it all to YouTube and let the PAC find it there – which means some truly bizarre footage is publicly available. The pro-Carly Fiorina super PAC, CARLY For America, has tested the limits – they even held events featuring Fiorina herself before she dropped out of the race. And the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC Correct the Record claims it can, in fact, coordinate with the Clinton campaign; they claim it’s legal because it only posts pro-Clinton material for free on its own website, and doesn’t make independent expenditures on ads. (Link)
Dark money: Dark money is money spent on political activity that comes from undisclosed donors. A huge source of dark money is 501(c)(4)s, which don’t have to disclose their donors but often engage in political activity, but it can also come from 501(c)(6)s and shell LLCs. (An important point to note is that super PACs do disclose their donors, and are not considered to be dark money because of this.) The use of dark money has grown dramatically, from $5.2 million in 2006 to over $300 million in 2012. The amount of dark money spent on the 2016 race so far is dramatically outpacing the 2012 rate. (Link)
Disclaimer: All political ads, websites and most emails have to include a disclaimer with the name of the organization or candidate who paid for and/or authorized it. Noncandidate political committees also have to include the physical or web address of the organization. But, crucially, they don’t have to include any information about who provided the money behind that organization – even if it’s an organization primarily or almost entirely funded by one person. See also: True sponsor. (Link)
FCC: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is relevant to campaign finance because they determine rules about political ads on TV and radio. Currently, broadcast TV stations are required to post their political files online, and the FCC recently voted to require cable, satellite and radio stations to upload their political files online as well. (Link)
FEC: The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is the body that regulates elections in the U.S., including campaign finance. There are six commissioners, three Democrats and three Republicans. It has been described as “worse than dysfunctional” by its then-chairwoman, because it’s gridlocked along party lines, meaning there are often no consequences for what others see as huge violations of election law. (Link)
Filing deadline: These are the deadlines by which campaigns and outside groups have to file reports about their election spending. In election years, campaigns file monthly and super PACs can choose either quarterly or monthly; in off years, outside groups file every six months and campaigns file quarterly. If you’re on any candidate’s email list, you’ll often see a dramatic increase in the number of fundraising emails in the days before the filing deadline, because campaigns want their fundraising numbers to be as impressive as possible. (Link)
Hybrid super PAC: Hybrid super PACs, also knowns as Carey committees, are PACs that have two separate bank accounts – one that contributes to candidates as a normal PAC and one that makes independent expenditures like a super PAC. After Speechnow.org v. FEC said unlimited individual contributions are permissible to groups that only make independent expenditures, Carey v. FEC added the wrinkle that PACs that aren’t connected to a business or union can be “hybrid” PACs, with two bank accounts: one that makes only independent expenditures but can accept and spent unlimited amounts, and one that can give directly to candidates but has to obey FEC limits on giving ($5,400 per cycle, currently). They’re getting bigger over time: They raised $11.3 million in the first half of 2015. See also: super PAC. (Link)
Independent expenditure: Independent expenditures (IEs) are communications – like TV or Internet ads, or direct mail – that expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate. They’re “independent” because they’re supposed to be produced by outside groups without coordinating with a candidate or their campaign at all. If the organization spends more than $10,000 in total on IEs on one election, it has to start reporting each expenditure to the FEC within 48 hours. (Link)
Internet blind spot: The Internet blind spot refers to the lack of information around political advertising online. While TV, cable and satellite stations have to upload information about political ads they run (which you can view through our tool Ad Sleuth), Internet ads require absolutely no disclosure at all. The only way to track them is to see when they’re being bought in FEC disclosures, but that tells you nothing about where the ad is running, how much ad space that money bought, how often they’re running or the content of the ad – hence, the “Internet blind spot.” (Link)
Issue ad: This refers to political communications, generally advertising, that focus on an issue rather than an individual. They do not advocate for or against a candidate in an election, unlike independent expenditures. Technically, 527s and 501(c)(4)s aren’t supposed to spend money on ads directly supporting or opposing a candidate, so they’ll run issue ads instead; oftentimes these groups claim the ads are educating citizens in the name of social welfare, when in actuality they are thinly veiled attempts to support or oppose a candidate. A famous example of this was the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth ads in 2004, which ran issue ads that focused on John Kerry’s record in Vietnam and led to the term “swiftboating,” meaning unfair and/or negative attack ads. These issue ads can mention candidates as long as they don’t include “express” advocacy for the candidate, so the distinction gets very blurred. (Link)
Joint fundraising committee: These are committees that benefit two or more candidates, PACs or party committees. Since McCutcheon v. FEC, donors can contribute as much as they want to these committees, and the money will be split amongst the beneficiaries in accordance with legal limits. For example: In 2012, Barack Obama established the Obama Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee made up of Obama’s official campaign committee as well as a host of state Democratic Party committees. This committee could solicit huge checks from a single donor, allocate the maximum amount to Obama’s campaign – $2,700 per election – then divvy the rest up amongst the various state parties. It’s a very efficient way for big donors to write large checks to multiple candidates or party committees at once. (Link)
LLC: An LLC is a limited liability company. Most LLCs aren’t involved in politics – a lot of businesses are LLCs – but sometimes they’re set up for murky political purposes. They don’t have to disclose donors and can act as sort of political shell companies: Jeb Bush’s super PAC Right to Rise received $100,000 from an LLC called TH Holdings – with no record of any other business dealings. Essentially, that means $100,000 of money with no traceable source went to his super PAC, allowing that donor to circumvent the super PAC disclosure requirement. You might also see LLCs in FEC filings when campaigns and PACs pay them to produce ads; one example is Target Enterprises, LLC, which is run by someone who works for Marco Rubio’s super PAC and is also paid by the super PAC to produce ads. (Link)
Leadership PAC: Leadership PACs were originally used by congressional leadership to raise funds for their party’s members. These days, they’re used by regular members of Congress and presidential candidates, and may spend their funds on things that campaigns are prohibited from spending on. Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, has described them as “political slush funds.” They can also be used for presidential candidates before they formally declare their intention to run, which allows them to escape all sorts of regulations on candidates. (Link)
McCutcheon v. FEC: This 2014 Supreme Court case removed aggregate limits on contributions, meaning the overall amount a donor gives per election to all candidates and committees. Before McCutcheon, donors couldn’t give more than $123,200 total per election cycle – after McCutcheon, they can give as much as they want, though individual contribution limits to candidates and committees still apply. This led to the creation of huge “super joint fundraising committees”, which allowed wealthy donors to support multiple politicians with a single big check. (Link)
Outside spending/outside group: This simply refers to groups or spending that isn’t done by candidates or parties, like super PACs, 527s or 501(c)(4)s. (Link)
PAC: A Political Action Committee (PAC) is a committee organized to specifically spend money on an election. There are a lot of different types of PACs – super PACs and hybrid PACs, leadership PACs, candidate PACs and so on. Some PACs are formed by industries, corporations or labor organizations; others are formed on behalf of certain candidates. (Link)
Political file: This comprises the documents of information that TV stations are required to keep and post about political ads they air. They include the time the ad aired (and what show was on), how much each ad cost and the total. Some also show how much money the ad buying firm made off the transaction. See also: FCC. (Link)
Social welfare organizations: These are 501(c)(4)s. Technically, 501(c)(4)s are “social welfare organizations” that aren’t devoted entirely to political activity, but many (c)(4)s engage in substantial political activity and face no consequences. See also: 501(c)(4). (Link)
Speechnow.org v. FEC: This is the Supreme Court decision that, combined with Citizens United, created super PACs. It specifically allowed unlimited contributions to committees that only make independent expenditures. (Link)
Super PAC: Technically, these are “independent expenditure-only committees,” organizations registered with the FEC that don’t contribute to candidates but do make independent expenditures. They can take unlimited donations from individuals, other PACs, corporations and unions. They do have to disclose their donors, but they can take money from 501(c)(4)s and LLCs that don’t disclose their donors. The amount of money super PACs spend on elections is truly enormous: For the 2016 election so far, super PACs have raised over $500 million and spent over $200 million. Some candidates have super PACs that are funded entirely by one large donor: Ted Cruz has several different super PACs, three of which are funded by distinct large donors from one individual or family. (Link)
True sponsor: Political ads have to display a disclaimer about the committee that funded them. But they don’t have to tell you if that committee is entirely funded by one person. Carolina Rising, a 501(c)(4) that spent money to elect Sen. Tom Tillis, R-N.C., in 2014, raised $4.8 million of its total $4.9 million haul from one donor – but its ads only had to display the group’s name and address. Tom Steyer’s super PAC NextGen Climate Action is another example of a group almost entirely funded by one individual whose ads only have to display the name of the group and not the donor that provides the vast majority of their funding. (Link)
Vendor: A vendor is a firm paid by campaigns or outside groups to perform certain activities, like buying or producing ads or direct mail. This OpenSecrets list shows the top vendors; bear in mind that many of those groups don’t keep all of that astronomical amount, because media buying firms will pay for the cost of the ads too and include that in what they charge the campaign. Sometimes, these vendors can obscure who is really making money: The biggest vendor of Right to Rise USA, a pro-Jeb Bush super PAC, is an LLC called LKJ, LLC. It’s registered in Delaware, which has very opaque registration requirements, so we have no idea who is really behind it – though it shares a P.O. box with a member of the Bush campaign. (Link)