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Election Law, Government Ethics & Lobbying

The purpose of this article is to provide a general explanation about Election Law. By that I mean the laws regulating the activities of those who participate in election campaigns, hold public office and/or lobby government. This subject matter is broken down into three categories: Campaign Finance Regulation, Ethics Regulation and Lobbying Regulation

There are some aspects of political activity that are not covered here. Specifically, this article will not address laws about ballot access, redistricting and reapportionment, election contests and recounts, political broadcasting and income taxation of political organizations and lobbying activities.

Campaign Finance Regulation

Campaign finance regulation is the law of how money is raised and spent in connection with election campaigns. The Federal Election Commission is charged with administering and enforcing federal campaign finance law. States also have oversight for campaign financing that are typically apart of the state's secretary of state or an independent election commission. Election campaigns may involve either:

  1. candidates for public office; or
  2. initiatives or referenda.

What they have in common is that the individuals or issues appear on a ballot on which citizens will vote.

Because of our federal system, regulation of elections is bifurcated between the federal government and the states (and sometimes trifurcated further between the states and local jurisdictions). This article focuses on the federal aspects of regulation, i.e. campaigns for President, Senator, or U.S. Representative. However, each element discussed below almost always has an analogous state or local regulatory scheme which would apply to campaigns for nonfederal offices such as governor, state legislator, mayor or city council. In some states, elections include judicial races and ballot issues. (Financing of campaigns for or against ballot issues are subject to disclosure.) There are printed and electronic resources which may be consulted for state and local regulations including the web sites of applicable agencies, some of which are listed in the last part of this Section ("Resource Materials").

Contributions, Expenditures and Candidates

The regulation of federal election campaigns is primarily governed by the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, as amended, 52 U.S.C. §30101, et seq. (formerly 2 U.S.C. § 431) ("FECA"). In 2002, Congress made major changes to FECA through the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), Pub. L. No. 107-155, 116 Stat. 81 (2002). These statutes dictate how candidates must raise and spend campaign funds, how these monies must be reported and who may contribute. These statutes also regulate advertising on political issues as well as fundraising by candidates and parties.

The pivotal concept triggering part of FECA is the existence of a "contribution." The term is defined as "anything of value" including cash, gifts, loans and in-kind goods and services which are made "for the purpose of influencing any election." 52 U.S.C. §30101(8)(A)(i). A donation of money to a candidate's campaign is the most common form of a contribution.

There is also a definition of "expenditure" which is virtually identical to the definition of "contribution". Id. §30101(9)(A)(i). The term has significance primarily to define the money spent by campaigns. Furthermore, expenditures by an individual or committee other than a candidate committee will either be a contribution in-kind (if coordinated with the campaign) or an "independent expenditure" if undertaken without control by the campaign. In either event expenditures are subject to reporting, either by the campaign, or by the independent spender, or both. See Id. §§ 30101(a), (c).

A person becomes a "candidate" when he or she raises over $5,000 in contributions, or spends over $5,000 in expenditures. Id. § 30101(2). In that event, the candidate becomes subject to FECA and must register a "political committee" with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and designate that committee. See Id. § 30102(e)(1). The political committee, known as the principal campaign committee of the candidate, then becomes responsible for receiving and accounting for all contributions and for reporting expenditures.


FECA bars certain individuals and groups from making contributions or expenditures. Corporations and labor unions may not contribute to federal candidates. The prohibition on corporations is very broad and applies to "any corporation whatever," Id. § 30118, including not-for-profit corporations as well as professional corporations. However, corporations and unions may form "separate segregated funds" commonly referred to as political action committees (PACs) which may collect voluntary personal donations and then make contributions to candidates. PACs must register with the FEC and file periodic reports of their finances.

FECA also prohibits contributions from government contractors (unless from the PAC of an incorporated contractor), Id. §30119 contributions in the name of persons other that the true contributor (i.e., money laundering), Id. §30119, and contributions in currency over $100, Id. §30119.

There also are two federal prohibitions which apply to both federal and state campaigns. First, a "foreign national" may not contribute to any election campaign. Id. § 30121. A foreign national is either a corporation which is formed in a foreign country or has its headquarters in a foreign country, or an individual who is a foreign citizen and has not been admitted for permanent residence in the United States. Accordingly, foreign citizens with a "green card" are not foreign nationals and may contribute.

Second, national banks and corporations authorized by an act of Congress may not contribute to any campaign, whether federal, state or local. Id. § 30118(a). This prohibition is redundant in federal election campaigns in which corporate donations are already banned. However, numerous states and municipalities permit corporate donations, but national banks and government-sponsored companies may not contribute.

Electioneering Communications

The BCRA prohibits "electioneering communications" by corporations and labor unions and by organizations that receive funds from corporations and labor unions. Id. § 30118. "Electioneering communications" are broadcast, cable and satellite communications that clearly identify a federal candidate and are aired 30 days before a primary or preference election, nomination caucus or convention, or 60 days before a general, special, or runoff election. Id. § 30104(3). For House and Senate candidates, the communication must be able to be received by 50,000 persons in the applicable Congressional District or state. Id. The electioneering communication provisions of the BCRA were upheld against a facial constitutional challenge in McConnell v. FEC, 540 U.S. 93 (2003).

There are also reporting requirements for electioneering communications aired by non-corporate and non-union persons.

Contribution Limits

Those who legally may contribute to federal campaigns may do so subject to a contribution limit. These limits are contained in 52 U.S.C. §30116 and apply to individuals and PACs (including political party committees). An individual may not contribute more than $2,000 per election (primary, runoff, and general elections are separate elections) to a candidate (as increased by the BCRA). A PAC (if it has registered with the FEC for more than six months, received donations from fifty contributors and given to five candidates) may give up to $5,000 per election per candidate.

In addition, individuals are subject to a "biennial" contribution limit of $95,000 ($37,500 of which may be made to candidates and $57,500 of which may be made to PACs and parties), which comes from the BCRA. Id.§ 30116(a)(3). Contributions by individuals to candidates and party committees and aggregate individual contributions are now indexed for inflation. § 30116(c)(Finally, there is a mechanism in place whereby the limit for contributions to a candidate is lifted if the candidate's opponents contribute a certain substantial amount to his or her own campaign. This is known as the "Millionaires' Provision." See Id. §§ 30116(4).

Soft Money

The BCRA bans national political party committees (e.g., the Republican National Committee (RNC), the Democratic National Committee (DNC), etc.) from raising and using money that is not subject to the limitations, prohibitions, and reporting requirements of FECA-these funds are known as "soft money." 52 U.S.C. §30125 and § 30101(20). State party committees may not use soft money for advertisements that promote, support, oppose, or attack candidates for federal office or for voter registration within 120 days of an election, get-out-the-vote drives, or voter identification activities. Id. State party committees may raise $10,000 in soft money per source for voter registration, GOTV, and voter identification. This is known as Levin funds. Id. There are also limits and prohibitions on parties and candidates raising funds for state candidates, political committees and nonprofit organizations.

Public Financing of Presidential Campaigns

Candidates for President may participate in public financing programs. Candidates for nomination, if they raise a threshold sum of money, may qualify for matching funds during the primaries from the FEC. In return, the candidates promise to abide by spending limits. Nominees of certain political parties (currently the Democratic, Republican and Reform parties) may request a grant of federal funds for the general election campaigns. Those campaigns similarly would be subject to a spending limit. In addition, federal funding is provided to defray the expenses of major party national nominating conventions. 26 U.S.C. §§ 9001 et seq. & § 9031 et seq.

Reporting/Public Disclosure

All candidate committees, party committees and PACs must file periodic reports of their financial activities with the government. All (except senate campaigns) file with the FEC. Senate campaigns file with the Secretary of the Senate. All of these filings are then available for public inspection and are available online at the Federal Election Commission website.


The FEC and the Department of Justice share enforcement responsibilities under FECA. See 52 U.S.C. §30109. The FEC has exclusive primary jurisdiction for civil enforcement, and the Department of Justice has responsibility for criminal enforcement. The vast majority of cases are handled by the FEC and, if there is a violation, are settled through what is called a "conciliation agreement." These agreements are negotiated between the FEC and the respondent in a confidential proceeding and will incorporate civil penalties and admissions of violations. The FEC also has the authority to separately issue advisory opinions, Id. § 30108 to any person who seeks FEC guidance on compliance.

Resource Materials

The following is a partial listing of various resources which can be used for further research and information on this subject:

  • Thomas J. Schwarz & Alan G. Strauss, Federal Regulation of Campaign Finance and Political Activity (1985).
  • Kenneth A. Gross, Federal Regulation of Campaign Finance and Political Activity (Citizens Research Foundation).
  • Corporate Political Activities 2006 (PLI Corp. Law and Practice Course Handbook Series No. B-1558) (2006).
  • Federal Election Campaign Finance Guide (CCH).
  • Jan Witold Baran, The Election Law Primer for Corporations (ABA Section of Business Law) (4th ed. 2004).
  • Money & Politics Report (BNA).
  • The Executive's Handbook on Political Contributions (State & Federal Communications 2006).

Federal Election Campaign website - Campaign finance law resources.

Ethics Regulation

As with campaign financing, ethics regulation occurs at both the state and federal levels. By ethics regulation I mean the laws and rules which apply to the conduct of public officials once in office, their receipt and use of private resources and gifts, as well as their personal financial disclosure. This is a growing area of law at the state and local levels. Virtually each jurisdiction, including each legislative body, county government, city council and state have rules that pertain to gifts, travel and conflicts of interest. All such sources should be consulted before lobbying or conducting any business with a nonfederal official. For purposes of this article only the federal statutes and regulations and the rules of the United States Senate and House of Representatives are discussed.


Personal gifts to public officials are highly regulated. In some instances they are completely banned except for gifts from immediate family members (See 47 C.F.R. § 1.3002). The general rule for executive branch officials is that a gift of less than $20 may be received (but never solicited). 5 C.F.R. § 2635.204(a). Senators or their staff may accept a gift if it is worth $50 or less and if the total amount of such gifts from the same giver does not exceed $100 in a calendar year. Any gift of $10 or less does not count toward either the $50 or $100 gift limit. In practical terms, this means that a Senate staffer may accept a lunch or dinner from a lobbyist twice per year if each meal costs more than $10 and less than $50. Meals of $10 or less do not count at all.

In 2007, the House instituted a rule that prohibits Members and staffers from accepting gifts from lobbyists or entities that retain or employ lobbyists. For others, the gift rule in the House is the same as described above for the Senate.

There are exceptions to these general rules on gifts. For example, executive branch employees may accept a meal valued at over $20 if it is part of a widely attended event at which the employee participates in his or her official capacity. Id. § 2635.204(f). House and Senate personnel may also attend similar functions and accept other types of gifts such as mementos, plaques, and products from their districts or states. House Rule XXV, cl. 5; Senate Rule XXXV, cl. 1(d).

In addition to these rules of conduct, criminal statutes may apply to certain gifts. A gift of any sort may not be given or received as a quid pro quo for official acts. These are bribes. 18 U.S.C. § 201(b). Moreover, gifts may be illegal gratuities if they are given with the expectation of favorable action by the public official on pending or future matters. Id. § 201(c).


Providing travel to a public official is a type of gift which is regulated differently. If the travel is for campaign purposes, then the activity is subject to FECA and will be governed by the rules for contributions and expenditures. (Special FEC rules apply to campaign use of corporate aircraft, see 11 C.F.R. § 114.9). When public officials accept travel expenses for non campaign travel, then the rules of the House and Senate or the relevant government department or agency apply. Each applicable rule should be consulted before offering a gift of travel.

In general, Senators and their staff may accept a gift of travel for official purposes if they are attending a meeting, speaking or conducting "fact finding." The House has similar rules, but has special rules applicable to trips sponsored by most entities that retain or employ lobbyists. The House also has special rules about the ability of lobbyists to plan or organize such trips and to join the Member in the travel.

The general rules will allow the individual to accept the cost of transportation, food and lodging. Either a relative or a staff person may accompany the official and the length of the trip is limited. The travel may not be "substantially recreational in nature." House Rule XXV, cl. 5(b)(1)(B); Senate Rule XXXV, cl. 2. Privately paid travel must be disclosed publicly by the government official.

Conflicts of Interest & Post-Employment Restrictions

Public officials are subject to conflict of interest rules. This is particularly true of executive branch employees who make executive decisions. 18 U.S.C. § 208. In those cases the official may be recused with knowledge that some other official without the apparent conflict will make the necessary decision.

In the legislative branch, recusal is highly unusual and discouraged. Legislators are representatives and when they recuse themselves, no one may vote in their stead on behalf of their constituency. However, legislators are urged to recuse themselves on matters that are uniquely personally and financially beneficial to them.

However, after leaving government, employees, including Senators and Representatives are subject to cooling off periods. Members of Congress and staff may not lobby their former offices for a period of one year. Id. § 207(e)(1), (2). Executive branch officials are subject to a similar restriction. Id. § 207(b). In addition, executive branch employees are barred from ever participating in a matter in which they were personally and substantially involved during their government employment. Id. § 207(a)(1).


Except for the criminal provisions mentioned above, the ethics rules apply to government officials and not to private parties. However, those who deal with officials, particularly lobbyists, must be familiar with the rules in order not to promote violations and the adverse publicity such violations tend to create.

The rules are enforced by ethics agencies. In the executive branch the principal organization is the Office of Government Ethics (OGE). In addition each department and agency has a designated agency ethics officer. Egregious violations of the ethics rules are subject to criminal prosecution by the Department of Justice.

In Congress, each house has a committee. In the House it is the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The other body has the Senate Ethics Committee.

Lobbying Regulation

Regulation of lobbying has expanded to all states and increasingly to municipalities. For example, Los Angeles and New York have their own regulatory schemes and agencies. Accordingly, state law and local ordinances must be consulted before petitioning state and local officials for legislation and similar governmental action.

The discussion below will focus on lobbying at the federal level. The primary consequence of lobbying is the application of the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), 2 U.S.C. § 1601, et seq., which mandates the registration of organizations that employ lobbyists and the reporting of their lobbying activities and expenses.

Lobbying Registration

Under the LDA, an individual or organization which intends to spend over a certain amount of money on lobbying must register with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House. The dollar amount which may require registration is (semiannually) either $24,500 in the case of in-house lobbyists or $6,000 with respect to retained outside lobbyists.

Registration is required only if there is a "lobbyist." A lobbyist is a person who has made or will make two or more "lobbying contacts" and who spends or will spend over 20% of his or her time on "lobbying activities." A lobbying contact is an oral or written communication with a covered executive or legislative branch official on behalf of a client or employer regarding legislation, government programs, policy or positions, federal contracts or the nomination or confirmation of anyone to federal office. 2 U.S.C. § 1602(8)(A). There are many types of contact which are exempt including congressional testimony and inquiries about the status of government proceedings and actions. Id. § 1602(8)(B); Lobbying Disclosure Technical Amendments Act of 1998, Pub. L. No. 105-166, 112 Stat. 38, 39 (1998). Covered government officials include every member and employee of Congress and every White House employee as well as senior officials and employees of the executive departments and agencies of government. 2 U.S.C. § 1601(3); 5 U.S.C. § 7511(b)(2)(B ); Lobbying Disclosure Technical Amendments Act of 1998, Pub. L. No. 105-166, 112 Stat. 38, 39 (1998).

"Lobbying activities" mean lobbying contacts and efforts in support of such contacts, including research.

In sum, an organization (e.g. corporation or union) which has employees or hires individuals who are "lobbyists" and intends to spend over the specified amounts on lobbying activities must register under the LDA. Registration is required within 45 days of the lobbying contact or the employment of lobbyists, whichever is earlier. Form LD-1 is used.

Lobbying Reporting

Registrants under the LDA must file reports semiannually. Form LD-2 is used and must be filed by February 14 and August 14 each year and reflect the activity of the preceding semiannual period.

The semiannual reports disclose the issues being lobbied, the part of the federal government that was being lobbied, and how much was spent on the lobbying. The Form LD-2 requires that the names of the lobbyists be listed, and that the issues they lobbied on and the branches of government (but not the names of government officials) be identified. There must be a dollar sum estimating the amount spent on lobbying (or in the case of lobbying firms, received for lobbying services) in excess of $10,000 and rounded to the nearest $20,000. Precise figures are not required and amounts calculated pursuant to Internal Revenue Code provisions governing lobbying expenses may be used. (Additional disclosures are required if lobbying activities are being defrayed by other entities or if the registrant is a foreign entity or associated with a foreign entity.)


The LDA is a recent law (1996) and thus far has not been enforced against any person, perhaps because it is relatively easy to comply with and regulates very public activity. However, violations of the LDA are punishable by civil penalties if knowing, and false lobbying reports are subject to the criminal statute prohibiting false filings with the government, 18 U.S.C. § 1001. The LDA is administered by the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House. They do not have authority to investigate or enforce the statute, but may make referrals to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.

Resources for Further Information

The LDA forms are available on line as is the various guidance issued by the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House:

State Election and Ethics Websites


Election Law and Campaign Finance

Ethics/Lobbying & Gifts


Elections Division, Office of the Secretary of State

State of Alabama Ethics Commission



General Elections: State of Alaska Division of Elections


Select Committee on Legislative Ethics




Secretary of State, State of Arizona Elections

Secretary of State, Lobbyists



Elections: Arkansas Secretary of State


Campaign Finance: Arkansas Ethics Commission



Secretary of State Elections & Voter Information


Fair Political Practices Commission



Colorado Secretary of State Elections Center


Colorado Secretary of State Campaign Finance



State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC)


Connecticut Office of State Ethics


Commissioner of Elections for the State of Delaware


State Public Integrity Commission

District of Columbia

Board of Elections and Ethics


DC Office of Campaign Finance



Florida Department of State Division of Elections


The Florida Commission on Ethics



Georgia Secretary of State: Elections Division


State Ethics Commission



State of Hawaii Office of Elections

Hawaii State Ethics Commission



Idaho Secretary of State Elections, Campaign Disclosure & Lobbyists


Secretary of State



Illinois State Board of Elections


Legislative Ethics Commission


Executive Ethics Commission



Indiana Secretary of State, Election Division


Indiana Inspector General: State Ethics Commission



Secretary of State, Voter/Elections


Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board



Kansas Secretary of State


Governmental Ethics Commission



Kentucky Secretary of State, Elections


Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission



Louisiana Secretary of State Elections Division


Louisiana Ethics Administration Program



Department of the Secretary of State Bureau of Corporations, Elections and Commissions


State of Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices



Maryland State Board of Elections


State Ethics Commission



Elections Division


Massachusetts State Ethics Commission



Michigan Department of State


Michigan State Board of Ethics



Minnesota Office of the Secretary of State - Voter & Election Information


Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board


Mississippi Secretary of State, Elections Division


Mississippi Ethics Commission



Secretary of State - Elections


Missouri Ethics Committee



Elections Bureau, Montana Secretary of State


Commissioner of Political Practices


Nebraska Election Administration


Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission


Nevada Secretary of State: Elections Division


Nevada Commission on Ethics



New Hampshire

New Hampshire Secretary of State: Election Division


Executive Branch Ethics Committee


New Jersey

Office of the Attorney General Division of Elections


State of New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission


New Mexico

New Mexico Secretary of State - Bureau of Elections


Ethics Administration



New York

New York State Board of Elections



New York State Ethics Commission

North Carolina

North Carolina State Board of Elections


North Carolina State Ethics Commission


North Dakota

Elections and Voting


Secretary of State



Ohio Secretary of State


Ohio Ethics Commission


Oklahoma State Election Board


Ethics Commission



Oregon Secretary of State: Elections Division


Government Standards and Practices Commission


Bureau of Commission, Elections and Legislation


State Ethics Commission


Rhode Island

Rhode Island Board of Elections


Rhode Island Ethics Commission



South Carolina

South Carolina State Election Commission


South Carolina State Ethics Commission


South Dakota

South Dakota Secretary of State - Election Process


Secretary of State


Division of Elections


Tennessee Ethics Commission



Elections Division


Texas Ethics Commission




State of Utah Elections Office


Utah Legislative Ethics



Elections & Campaign Finance Division

Vermont Secretary of State, Campaign Finance Division



Virginia State Board of Elections

Ethics Commission



Elections & Voting

Executive Ethics Board


West Virginia

Secretary of State


West Virginia Ethics Commission


Wisconsin State Elections Board


Wisconsin Ethics Board



Election Administration


Lobbyist Disclosure


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