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  • FEC Record: Outreach

FEC rules governing public debates (2010)

October 4, 2010

FEC regulations provide an exemption that allows certain nonprofit organizations and the news media to stage debates, without being deemed to have made prohibited corporate contributions to the candidates taking part in debates. This exception is consistent with the traditional role these organizations have played in the political process. This article describes the guidelines for nonprofits and news media-sponsored debates.

Other entities, such as individuals or unincorporated organizations, may sponsor debates; however, their costs are not exempted under FEC regulations and thus are considered contributions and/or expenditures. See the FEC’s explanation and justification for 11 CFR 110.13 at 60 Fed. Reg. 64261 (December 14, 1995).

Who may sponsor debates under the FEC’s exemption?

Candidate debates may be paid for by: 

  • A broadcaster, a bona fide newspaper or a magazine or other periodical publication, so long as they are neither owned nor controlled by a political party, political committee or candidate; or
  • A nonprofit organization described in section 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code (Title 26, U.S. Code) that does not endorse, support or oppose any candidate or party. 110.13(a) and 114.4(f)(1)-(2).

Corporate/labor donations permitted

A corporation or labor organization may donate funds to a nonprofit organization described in section 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code (Title 26, U.S. Code) that does not endorse, support or oppose any candidate or party to defray the cost of staging a candidate debate. 114.4(f)(1) and (3).

Debate structure

The debates must be structured such that they do not promote or advance one candidate over another, and they must include at least two candidates. 110.13(b).

Candidate selection

The organization staging the debate must select the candidates based on pre-established objective criteria. [FN1] For primary elections, the organization may restrict candidates to those seeking the nomination of one party. For general elections, the staging organization may not use nomination by a particular party as the sole objective criterion. 110.13(c).

In its explanation and justification for these regulations, the FEC stated that the choice of which objective criteria to use is largely left to the discretion of the staging organization and advised such organizations to reduce their objective criteria to writing and to make the criteria available to all candidates before the debate. See 60 Fed. Reg. 64262 (December 14, 1995).

  • Author 
    • Dorothy Yeager
    • Sr. Communications Specialist