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Politics

What You Need to Know About Political Donations

Knowing the rules of the game will help you decide how best to support your candidate.

By Michael Stratford

1. Hey, big spenders. During the 2008 campaign cycle, donors poured more than $5 billion into federal elections. This election season, even more money is likely to flood in, because it’s the first presidential election since several court decisions loosened campaign-finance rules.

2. The sky is not (always) the limit. According to federal election law, individuals may donate up to $2,500 per candidate per election (the primary and general elections are counted separately), up to $30,800 to a national political party annually, and up to $10,000 to state, district and local parties combined each year. Individual donations to issues-oriented political action committees (PACs) are capped at $5,000 per year. Anyone may contribute unlimited sums to nonprofit advocacy groups—often dubbed 501(c)(4)s after the tax-code provision that governs them—and to independent-expenditure-only committees, or “Super-PACs.”

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3. Make a connection. A direct donation to a candidate’s campaign often offers the most bang for your buck, says Michael Beckel, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. A contribution of, say, $1,000 might yield, depending on the district, special access to current or future elected officials, Beckel says. Campaigns prefer direct donations (even if they’re small), especially early in the race.

4. Donate to a cause. If you are more concerned about a particular issue than electing a candidate, you might want to donate to an advocacy group—such as Planned Parenthood or the National Pro-Life Alliance—which can then decide where your money is needed most. PACs may use contributions to promote their viewpoint, but they are prohibited from expressly promoting or attacking a candidate. Super-PACs may promote or critique a specific candidate, as long as they don’t coordinate with another candidate or a political party.

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5. Follow the money. Candidates are prohibited from spending campaign money on personal expenses, such as a new car or baseball tickets, but PACs and Super-PACs aren’t bound by those rules. “There are very few restrictions on what a political organization can do with its money,” says Paul Ryan, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center. Still, PACs and Super-PACs must disclose their spending in regular reports, which are available on the Federal Election Commission’s Web site.

6. Let the sunshine in. At the federal level, if you donate more than $200 to a candidate, political party, PAC or Super-PAC, your name, address, occupation and the amount of your contribution will become publicly available through FEC filings. Large contributors, however, may donate privately to a 501(c)(4), which may turn the money over to a Super-PAC, effectively skirting the disclosure requirements.

7. Give to a nonprofit twin. Nearly every advocacy group, from the National Rifle Association to the Sierra Club, has a related 501(c)(3) charity, according to Beckel. So, if you want to support an organization in a general sense, a contribution to its charitable operations could be a good bet. Your money may not be used directly for political purposes, but if you itemize deductions, you will be able to write off the contribution on your federal tax return.

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