Qualifying as a political party committee
Federal law confers benefits on party committees at the local, state and national levels, but only groups meeting specific criteria may take advantage of those benefits. The benefits of political party status apply only to organizations that qualify as political parties.
The federal campaign finance law defines “political party” as a committee or organization whose nominated or selected candidates for federal office appear on the ballot as the party’s candidates. However, ballot access is governed by state law.
Any organization that wants to become a political party should keep in mind federal campaign finance laws and regulations. First, national party committees may not accept or direct any funds outside the limits and prohibitions of federal law. Second, certain activity by state, district and local committees, termed federal election activity (FEA), is uniquely regulated. Third, party committees are restricted in how they may support certain tax exempt organizations. Finally, party committees meeting a certain financial threshold must register with the FEC and file regular financial reports.
While national party committees are not entitled to exemptions in the law that encourage grassroots activity, they have other advantages. They can make coordinated party expenditures on behalf of House, Senate and presidential nominees. Moreover, they have higher limits on the contributions they raise than other committees.
The laws in each state determine when a political organization qualifies as a “political party” entitled to have its candidates’ names appear as party-designated candidates on the general election ballot. While the laws differ from state to state, they generally all require a nonmajor party to demonstrate sufficient voter support—such as by filing a petition for party recognition signed by a representative number of voters—in order to qualify for ballot access in the general election. Moreover, the party must receive a sufficient number of votes in the election in order to sustain its qualified status.
In nearly all states, a party can achieve limited recognition as a political party for a specific general election by being named as the organization represented by the candidate in his or her nominating petition. Contact the Secretary of State’s office (or equivalent office) in each state for specific information on achieving political party status under state law.
Qualifying as a national party committee
Federal law defines a national committee as an organization which, by virtue of the bylaws of a political party, is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the party at the national level, as determined by the Commission. A committee should seek an FEC advisory opinion (AO) to verify that it has attained national committee status before taking advantage of the expanded contribution and expenditure limits that apply to a qualified national committee. The Commission will decide whether the committee or the party has demonstrated sufficient national-level activity to qualify, based on the criteria listed below:
- The party’s ballot access efforts must extend beyond the presidential races to races for the U.S. Congress. The party must have a sufficient number of party-designated federal candidates on the ballot in a sufficient number of states in different geographic areas to meet this requirement;
- The committee must engage in activities such as voter registration drives on an ongoing basis (rather than with respect to a particular election);
- A national committee must publicize, on a national basis, issues of importance to the party and its adherents such as through print or on a party website. This activity might involve publishing the party’s philosophy and positions, issuing press releases and distributing a national newsletter; and
- Other factors which indicate that a party committee has attained national status include holding a national convention; setting up national headquarters; and establishing state party committees.
Qualifying as state party committee
A state party committee is the organization that by virtue of the bylaws of a political party or by the operation of state law is part of the official party structure and is responsible for the day-to-day operation of a political party at the state level, including any entity established, maintained, financed or controlled by the organization. Whether an organization qualifies as a state party committee is determined by the Commission. Committees desiring such a determination should submit an AO request to the Commission.
Three requirements must be met in order for a committee to qualify as a state party committee:
- The committee must have at least one candidate for federal office whose name appears on the ballot as a candidate of the committee;
- The committee must possess an official party structure;
- The relationship between the political party and the committee must be based on an agreement that requires the committee to perform activities commensurate with the day-to-day operation of the party on a state level.
Qualifying as district or local party committee or subordinate committee
A district or local party committee is the organization that by virtue of the bylaws of a political party or by the operation of state law is part of the official party structure. It is responsible for the day-to-day operation of a political party at the level of city, county, neighborhood, ward, district, precinct or any other subdivision of a state.
A subordinate committee is a committee that operates in any subdivision of a state or is an organization under the control or direction of a state committee and is directly or indirectly established, financed, directed or controlled by a state, district or local committee.