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Qualifying as a political party

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.

While national committees are not entitled to the exempt party activities benefit, they have other advantages. They can make coordinated party expenditures on behalf of House, Senate and presidential nominees. Moreover, they enjoy higher limits on the contributions they raise than other committees.

Any organization that wants to become a political party should keep in mind unique 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.

Federal law

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.

State law

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.