Public Records of Political Donations

by Wilhelm Schnotz, studioD

If you’re the kind of investor who wants to ensure that your investments line up with your political priorities, you want to know which companies or business owners contribute to causes that you support. Federal law requires that political campaigns and similar organizations track and publicly report each donor’s contribution, although some organizations, including super PACs -- political action committees that operate by different rules than traditional PACs -- aren’t required to disclose donors.

Federal Election Campaign Act

The Federal Election Campaign Act requires disclosure of all contributions made to the campaigns, political parties and PACs of all candidates for federal office. These organizations must file periodic reports with the Federal Election Commission disclosing the names of donors who provided $200 or more, although they're not required to report smaller donations. The PACs also must disclose all expenditures they make to private parties of $200 or more. The FEC ensures that individuals don't exceed contribution limits, which are $2,500 to each candidate per election and $30,800 to the national party committee per election.

Accessing Reports

All candidates must file quarterly reports that itemize contributors and expenses. They must file additional reports before their primary election and before and after the general election. Reports that candidates and organizations file with the FEC become public documents and are maintained at the commission’s public records office in Washington, D.C. All reports are first analyzed to ensure compliance with election finance law, then are placed in the library for public use within 48 hours of receiving the documents. Requests for documents may be made by email at or by telephone at (800) 424-9530. Some requests may be processed by an automated fax service, accessed on a voice line at (202) 501-3413. Online viewing of reports isn't available in 2012.

Super PACs

Super PACs are political organizations that fall outside normal campaign finance laws. Organized as 501(c)(4) organizations under the tax code, these groups operate with far less oversight. Tax law allows these groups -- organized as civic and social welfare organizations and associations of employees, officially called "independent-expenditure only committees" -- to collect unlimited amounts of money from donors without having to report the contributions. These funds may be turned over to political parties -- which are bound to report the donation on their reports -- or they can be spent independently on materials to influence the election.

State Laws

State laws govern disclosure of donations provided to candidates and organizations for state and local races. Only four states -- Missouri, Oregon, Utah and Virginia -- place no limits on campaign contributions. All states and the District of Columbia require committees, candidates and parties to disclose the names of donors. While state laws vary, many only report names of donors who contribute more than a statutorily defined level, such as $100 per candidate or organization. Contact your state’s department of elections or elections commission to determine local disclosure laws.

About the Author

Wilhelm Schnotz has worked as a freelance writer since 1998, covering arts and entertainment, culture and financial stories for a variety of consumer publications. His work has appeared in dozens of print titles, including "TV Guide" and "The Dallas Observer." Schnotz holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Colorado State University.

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