This article highlights some basic rules for candidates and campaign committees as they prepare for the 2018 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 (see below).
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 channel.
Designation of committee
Candidates must designate a principal campaign committee by filing a Statement of Candidacy, FEC Form 2 (or by filing a letter containing the same information) within 15 days after becoming a “candidate” as defined above.
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, FEC Form 1.
Registration 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. Senate candidates cannot file electronically, but may print paper copies of the completed webforms and file those with the Secretary of the Senate. House candidates must file Forms 1 and 2 electronically if they meet the criteria for mandatory e-filing, described in the section below. Forms are also available for download on FEC.gov.
Campaign committees of House candidates 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. The mandatory electronic filing rules do not apply to Senate candidates or other committees that file with the Secretary of the Senate. Senate campaigns must file their official reports on paper. (Editor's note: as of September 2018, mandatory electronic filing rules now apply to Senate campaigns.)
Committees that are permitted to file with the FEC on paper are nonetheless encouraged to file electronically. 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.
Where to file Forms 1 and 2
Campaigns for the U.S. House file their reports, statements and amendments directly with the FEC; U.S. Senate candidates and their principal campaign committees file with the Secretary of the Senate. (Editor's note: As of September 2018, Senate candidates file with the FEC.)
Candidates who ran in previous elections
A candidate who ran in a previous election must file a Statement of Candidacy within 15 days after qualifying as a “candidate” (as defined above) 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 (e.g., a change in the committee’s name, address or treasurer). The committee must file the amendment within 10 days of the change in information, by filing with the Commission either FEC Form 1 or a letter noting the changes.
Registration with the FEC does not mean that the individual has qualified 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). Your committee will need this number to open a bank account. The quickest way to obtain your committee's EIN is via the IRS's website at http://www.irs.gov/Businesses/Small-Businesses-&-Self-Employed/How-to-Apply-for-an-EIN. Please note: This number is not the same number as your 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 http://www.irs.gov/polorgs for information about IRS requirements for political organizations.
Personal financial information
New and ongoing candidates will need to file disclosures of their personal finances with the following offices:
- Candidates for the US House of Representatives should contact the House Committee on Ethics at (202) 225-7103; and
- Candidates for the US Senate should contact the Senate Select Committee on Ethics at (202) 224-2981.
Questions and information pertaining to the disclosure of a candidate’s personal finances should be directed to the appropriate offices listed above.
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 chart at transition.fec.gov/info/contriblimitschart1718.pdf to ensure your fundraising complies with the limits for the 2017-18 election cycle.
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 the limits referenced above. 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. Their contributions are subject to the same limits that apply to any other individual. For more information on contributions from candidates' personal funds, consult the Campaign Guide for Congressional Candidates and Committees, Chapter 4, Section 12.
As noted in the limits chart referenced above, contributions to candidates are limited on a per election basis, with the primary and general considered separate elections. Campaign committees should 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 2017 would count against the 2018 primary election limit. Campaign committees must retain copies of contribution designations 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 promote voluntary compliance with the federal campaign finance laws. These opportunities include the following:
- Candidate committees can attend a two-day, regional conference where Commissioners and staff conduct a variety of technical workshops on the law. The FEC will host two-day conferences in Chicago on August 29-30, 2017, and Washington, DC, on November 14-15, 2017;
- Candidate committees can attend a day-long webinar or online roundtable workshop for an overview of the rules on June 7, 2017; and
- Committees can take advantage of a variety of instructional materials, including video workshops and interactive presentations that act as a supplement to our outreach programs and allows committees to test their knowledge on the federal campaign finance laws.
For the latest training opportunities, please visit the Educational Outreach page of FEC.gov and subscribe to FECMail 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 (press 6) or firstname.lastname@example.org.