Under the Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act), contributions are subject to limits. This page examines the rules concerning the limits placed on contributions to a candidate’s campaign. The limits apply to all types of contributions (except contributions made from a candidate’s personal funds).
It is important to note that a campaign is prohibited from retaining contributions that exceed the limits. In the event that a campaign receives excessive contributions, it must follow special procedures for handling such funds.
Contribution limits for 2017-2018 federal elections
|Candidate committee||PAC† (SSF and nonconnected)||Party committee: state/district/local||Party committee: national||Additional national party committee accounts‡|
|Donor||Individual||$2,700* per election||$5,000 per year||$10,000 per year (combined)||$33,900* per year||$101,700* per account, per year|
|Candidate committee||$2,000 per election||$5,000 per year||Unlimited transfers||Unlimited transfers|
|PAC: multicandidate||$5,000 per election||$5,000 per year||$5,000 per year (combined)||$15,000 per year||$45,000 per account, per year|
|PAC: nonmulticandidate||$2,700* per election||$5,000 per year||$10,000 per year (combined)||$33,900* per year||$101,700* per account, per year|
|Party committee: state/district/local||$5,000 per election||$5,000 per year||Unlimited transfers||Unlimited transfers|
|Party committee: national||$5,000 per election**||$5,000 per year||Unlimited transfers||Unlimited transfers|
*Indexed for inflation in odd-numbered years.
†“PAC” here refers to a committee that makes contributions to other federal political committees. Independent-expenditure-only political committees (sometimes called “Super PACs”) may accept unlimited contributions, including from corporations and labor organizations.
‡The limits in this column apply to a national party committee’s accounts for: (i) the presidential nominating convention; (ii) election recounts and contests and other legal proceedings; and (iii) national party headquarters buildings. A party’s national committee, Senate campaign committee and House campaign committee are each considered separate national party committees with separate limits. Only a national party committee, not the parties’ national congressional campaign committees, may have an account for the presidential nominating convention.
**Additionally, a national party committee and its Senatorial campaign committee may contribute up to $47,400 combined per campaign to each Senate candidate.
$100 limit on cash contributions
A campaign may not accept more than $100 in cash from a particular source with respect to any campaign for nomination for election, or election to federal office.
$50 limit on anonymous contributions:
An anonymous contribution of cash is limited to $50. Any amount in excess of $50 must be promptly disposed of and may be used for any lawful purpose unrelated to any federal election, campaign or candidate.
The value of an in-kind contribution — the usual and normal charge — counts against the contribution limit as a gift of money does. Additionally, like any other contribution, in-kind contributions count against the contributor’s limit for the next election, unless they are otherwise designated.
How limits work
The limits on contributions to candidates apply separately to each federal election in which the candidate participates. A primary election, general election, runoff election and special election are each considered a separate election with a separate limit. (A special election may itself involve separate primary, general and/or runoff elections, each with a separate contribution limit.)
Party caucus or convention
A party caucus or convention constitutes an election only if it has the authority under relevant state law to select a nominee for federal office. (Notable examples of these types of conventions are those held in Connecticut, Utah and Virginia.) Otherwise, there is no separate limit for a caucus or convention; it is considered part of the primary process. When the caucus or convention does constitute a primary election, reports must be filed for the convention as they would for the primary.
Candidates who lose in the primary
A candidate is entitled to an election limit only if he or she seeks office in that election. Thus, a candidate who loses the primary (or otherwise does not participate in the general election) does not have a separate limit for the general. If a candidate accepts contributions for the general election before the primary is held and loses the primary (or does not otherwise participate in the general election), the candidate’s principal campaign committee must refund, redesignate or reattribute the general election contributions within 60 days of the primary or the date that the candidate publicly withdraws from the primary race.
Primary vs. general election
Campaigns must adopt an accounting system to distinguish between contributions made for the primary election and those made for the general election. Nevertheless, the campaign of a candidate running in the general election may spend unused primary contributions for general election expenses. The contributions would continue to apply toward the contributors’ limits for the primary. The campaign of a candidate running in the general election may use general election contributions for primary election debts; the contributions would still count against the contributor’s general election limits. Should the candidate lose the primary, contributions accepted for the general must be refunded, redesignated or reattributed within 60 days and may not be used to repay primary election debt. Therefore, candidates should ensure they have enough cash on hand to make those refunds if needed.
Independent and non-major party candidates
Even when independent and non-major party candidates are not involved in an actual primary, they are entitled to a primary limit. They may choose one of the following dates to be their “primary” date, and, until that date, they may collect contributions that count towards the contributor’s primary limits.
- The last day on which, under state law, a candidate may qualify for a position on the general election ballot; or
- The date of the last major primary election, caucus or convention in that state. Non-major party candidates may also choose the date of the nomination by their party as their primary date.
Independent and non-major party candidates must file the pre-election report applicable to their state and any 48-Hour Notices for contributions of $1,000 or more, even if they are not actually participating in a primary election or nominating convention.
Unopposed candidates; elections not held
A candidate is entitled to a separate contribution limit even if:
- The candidate is unopposed in an election;
- A primary or general election is not held because the candidate is unopposed; or
- The general election is not held because the candidate received a majority of votes in the previous election.
Unopposed candidates must file the pre-election report applicable to their state and any 48-Hour Notices for contributions of $1,000 or more, even if they are not actually participating in a primary election or nominating convention.
A federal campaign may establish a recount fund either as a separate bank account of the candidate’s authorized committee or as a separate entity. Although they are not considered contributions under the Act, any funds solicited, received, directed, transferred or spent in connection with a recount are subject to the amount limitations, source prohibitions and reporting requirements of the Act. This means that the normal contribution limits, reporting requirements and source restrictions apply. Committees must also disclose funds spent on a recount.
Designated and undesignated contributions
The Commission strongly recommends that campaigns encourage contributors to designate their contributions for specific elections. Designated contributions ensure that the contributor’s intent is conveyed to the candidate’s campaign. In the case of contributions from political committees, written designations also promote consistency in reporting and thereby avoid the possible appearance of excessive contributions on reports.
Effect of designating vs. not designating
Designated contributions count against the donor’s contribution limits for the election that is named.
Undesignated contributions count against the donor’s contribution limits for the candidate’s next election.
- An undesignated contribution made after the candidate has won the primary, but before the general election, applies toward the contribution limit for the general election.
- In the case of the candidate who has lost the primary, an undesignated contribution made after the primary automatically applies toward the limit for the next election in which the candidate runs for federal office.
- If the candidate does not plan to run for federal office in the future, the committee may:
- Presumptively redesignate the contribution to retire any primary debts they may have or
- Request written redesignation from the contributor to retire debts from a previous election cycle
- Presumptively redesignate the contribution to retire any primary debts they may have or
Otherwise, the committee must return or refund the contribution.
How contributions are designated
Contributors designate contributions by indicating in writing the specific election to which they intend a contribution to apply. Contributors may make this written designation on the check (or other signed written instrument) or in a signed statement accompanying the contribution. A designation also occurs when the contributor signs a form supplied by the candidate.
Effect of dates on designated and undesignated contributions
The date an undesignated contribution is made determines which election limit it counts against. The date of receipt, however, does not affect the application of the contribution limits. An undesignated contribution made on or before Election Day counts against the donor’s limit for that election, even if the date of receipt is after Election Day and even if the campaign has no net debts outstanding. On the other hand, an undesignated contribution made after an election counts against the donor’s limit for the candidate’s next election.
Both the date a contribution is made and the date of receipt affect the application of the net debts outstanding rule to a designated contribution. The date the contribution is made determines whether the rule will apply, while the date of receipt governs whether the contribution is acceptable under the rule. For example, a contribution designated for the primary and made before that election will not be subject to the net debts outstanding rule, even if the campaign receives the contribution after the primary. By contrast, a contribution designated for — but made after — the primary is acceptable only to the extent the campaign has net debts outstanding for the primary on the date of receipt.
In-kind contributions designated for more than one election in an election cycle
In AO 1996-29, the Commission determined that the value of an in-kind contribution of used computer equipment, received before the primary and designated in writing by the contributors for all elections in the cycle, could, in fact, be allocated among all elections in the same election cycle. The contribution was distinguishable from the type of in-kind contribution that is used for one particular election (such as printing or mailing costs related to a general election fundraiser). If the candidate had lost the primary election, the committee would have had to refund the amount designated for the general election (in this case, the candidate was active in each election within the election cycle). The total value of the contribution could not exceed the contributor’s combined limit for all the elections in the cycle. The Commission did not address the issue of allocating an in-kind contribution over more than one election cycle.
Date made v. date received
The date a contribution is made by the contributor and the date the contribution is received by the campaign are significant for purposes of the contribution limits. It is important to understand the distinction.
The date a contribution is made is the date the contributor relinquishes control over it For example:
- A hand-delivered contribution is considered made on the date it is delivered by the contributor to the campaign.
- A mailed contribution is made on the date of the postmark. Note that if a campaign wishes to rely on a postmark as evidence of the date a contribution was made, it must retain the envelope or a copy of it.
- An in-kind contribution is made on the date that the goods or services are provided by the contributor.
- A contribution made via the Internet is considered made on the date the contributor electronically confirms making the transaction.
- An earmarked contribution is considered made during the election cycle in which the contribution is actually made, regardless of the year in which the election is held.
The date of receipt is the date the campaign (or a person acting on the campaign’s behalf) actually receives the contribution. This is the date used by the campaign for reporting purposes, but it also affects the application of the net debts outstanding rule.
Credit card contributions
When the committee receives contributions through credit card charges, the date of receipt is the date on which the committee receives the contributor’s signed authorization to charge the contribution. The treasurer should retain a copy of the authorization form in the committee’s records.
The date of receipt for an in-kind contribution is the date the goods or services are provided to the committee, even if the contributor pays the bill for the goods or services after they are provided.
Video: Contributions 2017-2018