This article highlights some basic rules for candidates and campaign committees as they prepare for the 2020 elections.
Under federal law, an individual becomes a “candidate” when he or she receives over $5,000 in contributions or makes over $5,000 in expenditures. This definition applies to all candidates, including incumbents who are running for re-election.
Testing the waters exemption
FEC regulations include a registration and reporting exemption for individuals who are exploring a potential candidacy, but have not decided whether to enter the race. This testing the waters exemption allows individuals to raise and spend funds to travel, conduct polling and engage in other activities aimed at gauging the viability of candidacy without having to register or file reports with the FEC. For more information, consult our e-learning video on the FEC's FECConnect On Demand YouTube channel.
Designation of committee
Registration by principal campaign committee
Within 10 days after it has been designated by the candidate, the principal campaign committee must register by filing a Statement of Organization, Form 1. For more information on candidate registration, consult our e-learning video on the FEC’s FECConnect On Demand YouTube channel.
Registration on Forms 1 and 2
Many federal candidates and committees use webforms to register with the Commission online. These online submissions are considered electronic filings and obligate the committee to file all of its reports and statements electronically for the remainder of the calendar year. Candidates must file Forms 1 and 2 electronically if they meet the criteria for mandatory e-filing.
Once registered, candidate committees file regular reports to disclose their receipts and disbursements.
Candidate committees must file all reports and statements electronically if their total contributions or total expenditures exceed, or are expected to exceed, $50,000 in a calendar year.
Committees that are permitted to file with the FEC on paper are encouraged to file electronically. Forms are also available for download on FEC.gov. Please note, once a committee begins to file its reports electronically, it must continue to file electronically for the remainder of the calendar year unless the Commission determines that extraordinary and unforeseeable circumstances make continued electronic filing impracticable.
Candidates who ran in previous elections
A candidate who ran in a previous election must file a new Statement of Candidacy within 15 days after qualifying as a “candidate” for an upcoming election cycle or future election. The candidate may either designate a new principal campaign committee or redesignate his or her previous principal campaign committee (if it has not yet terminated). A newly designated committee will receive a new FEC identification number, while an existing committee retains its original number. If the candidate forms a new committee, that committee must file its Statement of Organization with the Commission within 10 days of being designated. If the candidate uses an existing committee, the committee need only amend its Statement of Organization if there has been any change in the information on it (for example, a change in the committee’s name, address, treasurer, or the candidate’s office sought). The committee must file the amendment within 10 days of the change in information.
Registering with the FEC as a candidate does not qualify an individual to have his or her name placed on the ballot. State law governs ballot access requirements for federal offices; for information, consult the appropriate state authority. For a list of state election offices, consult the FEC’s Combined Federal/State Disclosure and Election Directory.
Employer Identification Number
The IRS requires political committees to obtain a tax ID number, formally referred to as an employer identification number (EIN). A committee needs this number to open a bank account. The quickest way to obtain an EIN is via the IRS's website. Please note: This number is not the same number as an FEC committee ID number. The FEC does not issue EINs, nor may FEC staff answer questions about the rules that pertain to them or other tax law requirements. Please visit https://www.irs.gov/polorgs for information about IRS requirements for political organizations.
Personal financial information
New and ongoing candidates need to file disclosures of their personal finances with the following offices:
- Candidates for the US House of Representatives should contact the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives at 202-225-7000;
- Candidates for the US Senate should contact the Senate Select Committee on Ethics at 202-224-2981; and
- Candidates for President or Vice President should contact the Federal Election Commission Public Records Office at 202-694-1120 or 1-800-424-9530 (menu option 2).
Questions and information pertaining to the disclosure of a candidate’s personal finances should be directed to the appropriate offices.
Fundraising and contribution limits
Some of the contribution limits that apply to federal candidates are adjusted for inflation each election cycle, so it’s important to consult the current limits chart.
Candidate’s personal funds/contributions from family members
When candidates use their personal funds for campaign purposes, they are making contributions to their campaigns. While the candidate’s personal contributions must be reported, they are not subject to contribution limits. Please note, however, that this exception applies only to the candidate’s own contributions and not to contributions from members of the candidate’s family. Contributions from family members are subject to the same limits that apply to any other individual. Learn more about contributions from the candidate's personal funds and reporting and reimbursing advances from individuals.
Contributions to candidates are limited on a per election basis, with the primary and general considered separate elections. Campaigns must adopt an accounting system to distinguish contributions made for the primary from those made for the general election. Campaigns should also encourage contributors to designate contributions in writing for specific elections since undesignated contributions automatically count against the donor’s limit for the candidate’s next election. For example, an undesignated contribution to a House candidate received in 2019 would count against the 2020 primary election limit. Campaign committees must retain copies of contribution designations (and other records) for three years.
Debt retirement for a previous election
A campaign may accept contributions after an election to retire election debts provided that it satisfies certain requirements, summarized in this Record article.
The FEC offers new and ongoing committees a number of opportunities to learn about the federal campaign finance laws. Opportunities for candidate committees include:
- Regional conferences where Commissioners and staff conduct a variety of technical workshops on the law. During this election cycle, the FEC will host two-day conferences in Chicago on August 27-28, 2019, San Diego on October 29-30, 2019, and a third location in early 2020;
- A day-long webinar covering the rules for campaign committees on June 12, 2019, and again in early 2020;
- Periodic topic-based webinars, including an electronic filing webinar on April 3, 2019; and
- A variety of instructional materials, including online publications and e-learning videos that supplement our educational outreach programs.
For a complete list of the latest training opportunities, please visit the Trainings page of FEC.gov and subscribe to receive email updates when registration opens for a program or new information becomes available.
Where to obtain more information
For more information about running for federal office, please call or email the FEC’s Information Division at 800-424-9530 (menu option 6) or firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about reporting, please call or email the FEC’s Reports Analysis Division at 800-424-9530 (menu option 5) or submit a question through our web portal (for registered committees assigned an FEC ID number).