The FEC often receives questions about the rules governing internet activity conducted by political committees. While this article responds to some of the most common questions, it does not cover all aspects of these issues. Readers should consult the Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act), Commission regulations and advisory opinions (AOs) for additional information.
Online fundraising guidelines
The Commission has issued several AOs clarifying that political committees engaged in online fundraising must comply with the Act's recordkeeping and reporting provisions and be able to ascertain whether contributions received are permissible. These requirements apply whether the committees are selling merchandise or other fundraising items, or simply collecting straightforward donations online.
Recordkeeping and screening requirements
First, committees using the internet for fundraising must comply with the contribution recordkeeping requirements. In particular, they must make "best efforts" to obtain and report the identification of donors who contribute more than $200 during a calendar year (or during an election cycle for an authorized committee). See AO 2011-13. Also, committees must maintain electronic records and contributor data for three years after the date on which they reported the contributions. 11 CFR 102.9(c).
Second, committees must examine all contributions received for potential illegality. In a series of AOs, the Commission has approved proposals by committees and commercial vendors to safeguard against soliciting prohibited contributions, including informing potential contributors of all of the Act’s prohibitions (i.e., the prohibitions on contributions from corporations, labor organizations, federal government contractors, and foreign nationals). AOs 2019-09, 2016-08, 2011-13, 2007-30, and AOs cited within contain detailed examples of Commission-approved language and mechanisms for vetting contributors.
Sales of fundraising items online
When selling a fundraising item either online or by other means, a committee must treat the entire purchase price of the fundraising item as a contribution from the purchaser to the committee. The committee must also aggregate all contributions received from each contributor and, if the aggregate amount exceeds $200 per calendar year (or per election cycle for an authorized committee), the committee must itemize the contribution when reporting. 11 CFR 104.3(a)(4)(i), (ii), 11 CFR 110.11(a)(1), 11 CFR 100.53; AO 2019-09.
Reporting fees charged to process contributions raised online
A commercially reasonable fee that a vendor charges a political committee to process an individual’s contribution to the committee is considered part of the contribution and the committee must report it as such. The committee must also report the processing fee as an expenditure on its report. See AO 2019-04.
The Commission has approved a number of proposals involving online entities that offer services to political contributors, rather than political committees. The Commission found that entities that process contributions as a service to contributors, and not to the recipient political committees, are not making contributions to those committees. In these circumstances, the payment processing fees charged by the online entities to the contributors and retained by the online entities are not part of the contribution from the contributor to the political committee. See AO 2015-15 and AOs cited.
Disclaimers for committees' websites and email
The Act and FEC regulations require all political committees to place disclaimers on their public websites.
In addition, if a political committee sends more than 500 substantially similar emails, each message must include a disclaimer. 11 CFR 110.11(a)(1).
Disclaimers for committees' paid advertisements on other persons' websites
All political committee communications that are placed on another person’s website for a fee are considered "general public political advertising," and are thus "public communications" under the law. 11 CFR 100.26. FEC rules on coordinated communications and disclaimer requirements apply to paid web advertisements by a political committee.
In AO 2017-12, the Commission addressed a 501(c)(4) organization’s paid advertising on Facebook that expressly advocated the election or defeat of clearly identified federal candidates. The Commission concluded that the 501(c)(4) organization was required to include all of the disclaimer information specified by 52 U.S.C. § 30120(a) on its proposed paid Facebook image and video advertising.
In AO 2017-05, the Commission considered a request from Great America PAC and The Committee to Defend the President, nonconnected political committees that each maintained a publicly accessible Twitter profile and planned to make independent expenditures that would require disclaimers. The Commission concluded that Great America PAC may use its Twitter handle in lieu of its actual name, in both written and spoken disclaimers, because the Twitter handle, which is materially identical to its name, unambiguously gives "the reader, observer, or listener adequate notice of the identity of the person or political committee that paid for the communication." Similarly, the Commission concluded that The Committee to Defend the President may include both its full name and Twitter handle in disclaimers, as long as it is clear that the committee is paying for the communication. However, the Commission concluded neither committee may use its Twitter handle in its disclaimers in lieu of its permanent street address, telephone number, or World Wide Web address, even if the committee’s Twitter profile includes the address of–and a link to–its website containing the requisite information.
Additional rules for corporate/labor/trade PACs
Separate segregated funds established by corporations, labor organizations or trade associations must also ensure that their online solicitations comply with the basic solicitation rules for SSFs. Generally, SSFs may only solicit contributions from the restricted class of their connected organizations and must include special notices regarding the voluntary nature of an SSF contribution. 11 CFR 114.5(a), (g).
In AOs, the Commission has determined that SSF intranet and websites accessible only to the restricted class met these requirements while those open to the general public did not. To meet the requirement that an SSF only solicits the restricted class, the Commission has approved the use of a password log-in for the SSF web page that includes a statement that the SSF may only solicit its restricted class for contributions and that the SSF will refund contributions from those outside the restricted class. Once accessed by a member of the restricted class, the web page with the solicitation must include the required solicitation notices for SSFs to meet statutory and regulatory requirements. AOs 2007-27, 2006-03, and 2000-07.
The connected organization may also maintain an email list to send PAC solicitations to members of the organization's restricted class. Those solicitations must include the required notices for every SSF solicitation.
11 CFR 100.26
Public communications defined
11 CFR Part 102
Registration, organization and recordkeeping by political committees
11 CFR 102.9(c)
Committees must maintain records for three years after the date contributions reported
11 CFR 103.3(b)
Examine all contributions received for potential illegality
11 CFR 104.7
11 CFR 109.21
What is a coordinated communication?
11 CFR 110.11(a)
Communications requiring disclaimers
11 CFR 110.11(b)
Specific disclaimer requirements
11 CFR 114.5
Separate segregated funds
Online fundraising guidelines: