Party Lines

Published — September 26, 2002 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Federal Election Commission

How does the federal law stack up?


Federal campaign finance laws are generally considered to be the standard against which similar laws in the states are measured. But the Center for Public Integrity survey shows four states—Washington, Oregon, California, and North Carolina—have more stringent laws than those used to govern federally regulated party committees. See FEC Report Card below.

Every state divides all its political dollars into non-federal and federal activity. Non-federal spending is used to help candidates for offices other than Congress and the president. Spending on candidates for governor, state legislature and local office is considered non-federal. That political activity is reported to state elections or ethics agencies.

Federal activity—spending to help candidates for Congress or the presidency —must be disclosed to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

The Center surveyed the type of information political party committees must report to state oversight agencies. State reporting usually covers only non-federal spending. But state parties also participate in federal elections and are required to abide by FEC rules. To provide context, Center researchers applied its disclosure ranking survey questions to the federal law.

Why didn’t the FEC get a perfect score?

The Center survey included 23 questions with weighted points totaling 100. It focused on five areas of campaign finance regulation: extent of disclosure of contributions and disclosure of expenditures; frequency of filing; barriers to access; and enforcement. The FEC laws received 87 points.

On the whole, federal law demands more than state law, though it would have ranked fifth in the nation, behind Oregon, Washington, California (which were tied), and North Carolina.

The FEC lost points on several questions:

  • State party committees are not required to file disclosure reports monthly, which would receive maximum points; though they have the option to do so during both the election and non-election year. When the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act goes into effect after the Nov. 6 elections, monthly filing will become a requirement.
  • Late contribution reports are not required. Federal candidates must file such reports, but party committees do not. That means money given to the state party within 20 days of the election will not show up on FEC disclosures until the next report is due—after the election.
  • Contributions are not itemized until an individual contributes $200 or more during the calendar year. However, it should be noted that all contributions from political committees or party committees must be itemized.
  • Individuals don’t identify their employer or occupation until the donor has contributed $200 or more in a calendar year.
  • Generally, only expenditures of $200 or more must be itemized. However, there are some expenditures that must be itemized regardless of the amount, including money spent on shared federal/nonfederal operating costs, contributions to candidates and political committees and transfers to party committees.
  • Only committees “that receive contributions or make expenditures in excess of $50,000 in a calendar year” file disclosures by computer. In practice, most state-wide political parties meet this threshold and therefore must file electronically.

State Secrets Disclosure Report Card:

Federal Election Commission
Section Section Score Maximum Section Score
Reporting Contributions 18 22
Reporting Expenditures 18 20
Filing Requirements 7 14
Public Access 24 24
Enforcement 20 20
Total 87 100
Question Answer Point Value of Answer
Reporting Contributions
1 Are all contributions to a party committee required to be reported to the Federal Election Commission? All contributions are reported 10
2 What contributions must be itemized? Contribution itemization threshold: Aggregate $100 and above 2
3 Are donors required to report their occupation? Occupation/Employer required for aggregate contributions $100 and above 2
4 Does the form provide standardized categories for identifying contributor? Standardized categories are provided 2
5 Does the form include space to report a year-to-date aggregate for each contributor? Year-to-date aggregate contributions reported 2
Reporting Expenditures
6 Are all expenditures made by a party committee required to be reported to the Federal Election Commission? All expenditures are reported 10
7 What expenditures must be itemized? Itemization threshold: Aggregate of $200 and above 2
8 Is the purpose of each itemized expenditure required to be reported? Required to report purpose of each itemized expenditure 2
9 Does the form provide standardized expenditure categories for identifying the purpose of the expenditure? Standardized purpose categories are provided 2
10 Are committees required to list the name of a candidate they made expenditure on behalf of? Required to list candidate for in-kind expenditures 2
Filing Requirements
11 ELECTION YEAR: Frequency of filing campaign finance reports: Election Year Filing: 5 to 9 reports per year 2
12 NON-ELECTION YEAR: Frequency of filing campaign finance reports: Non-Election Year Filing: 2 to 4 reports per year 1
13 Is electronic filing required for party committees? Electronic filing required for only those receiving/spending above a given threshold 2
14 Are late (or last-minute) contribution reports required to be filed? Late (or last-minute) contribution reports not required 0
15 Are late (or last-minute) expenditure reports required to be filed? Late (or last-minute) expenditure reports are required 2
Public Access
16 Location/format of reports: Downloadable files/database 20
17 Cost of paper reports: Paper report cost: 25 cents or less per page 2
18 Are any late (or last-minute) reports made available on the Web prior to the election? Late (or last-minute) reports are made public prior to election 2
19 Does the Federal Election Commission have auditing authority? The Federal Election Commission has auditing authority 4
20 Does the Federal Election Commission routinely review filings for accuracy and completeness, either through a formal audit process or an informal review process? The Federal Election Commission reviews or audits filings routinely 10
21 Is there a penalty on the books for missing a filing deadline? Penalty is on the books for missing filing deadline 2
22 Is there a penalty on the books for filing an incomplete report? Penalty is on the books for filing an incomplete report 2
23 Does the Federal Election Commission publish a list of delinquent filers either on the Web or in a printed document? The Federal Election Commission publishes list of delinquent filers 2

Read more in Money and Democracy

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