Here in the U.S., the quadrennial presidential election cycle seems to start earlier and earlier…to the point where it seems that no sooner is one sworn in than politicians start announcing that they are going to be the next one. But the real election season kicks off in February preceding the general election, when the first state primaries and caucuses are held.
Which makes this a good time to talk about political campaigns and your website. If you have no idea who any of the candidates are and want nothing to do with them, you’re probably all set. But if you have the urge to show your support on your site, you could be wading into the murky and somewhat counterintuitive world of campaign finance regulations.
(None of the following should be construed as legal advice of any kind.)
Campaign Finance 101 – Short Version
In a nutshell, the various federal campaign finance laws limit the amount (in cash or in goods and services) that individuals and organizations can contribute in support of (or against) a candidate for federal office, and in some cases, prohibit any contributions at all or require disclaimers, disclosures, and filings with the Federal Election Commission.
Still there? OK. For the purpose of this discussion, you are thinking about putting a graphic on your website that says “Vote for Sally!” where Sally is a candidate for federal office, defined as president, vice president, U.S. Senate, or U.S. House of Representatives. (If Sally is running for office at the state or local level, only your state’s campaign finance rules apply.) Under the law, this advertisement is considered a contribution, even if you didn’t spend any extra money to design it or upload it to your site.
What Are You?
Your first task is to figure out what you are—specifically, does your website represent you as an individual or as an incorporated business?
- Individual: This is considered an independent expenditure, as long as you are not coordinating with Sally, Sally’s political party, or any committee organized for the sake of electing Sally. Under federal law, you need to put a disclaimer on your ad that says it was paid for by you and not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. You can spend any amount you want on this type of advertising, but if you spend more than $250 in a calendar year, you have to file a report with the Federal Election Commission.
- Corporation: This is where it gets murky. The law prohibits contributions from corporations and labor unions, for-profit and nonprofit alike. (It also prohibits contributions from any federal government contractor.) This means that you, as an incorporated business, cannot spend funds from your business account to support a candidate. As your web design, development, and hosting are most likely paid for from your business account, it’s highly probable that the “Vote for Sally!” banner ad on your site would be considered a corporate contribution.
Either way, your “Vote for Sally!” ad might end up being more trouble than it’s worth. So what are some alternative ways that you can support Sally?
- Make personal contributions. As an individual (i.e., using your personal account), you can contribute up to $2,600 to the candidate or the candidate’s campaign committee per election (the primary and general elections are considered separate elections). There are higher limits for contributions to political action committees and to state and national party committees. In this way, your contribution will probably reach many more people than your website banner ad would.
- Volunteer. As a volunteer, you can make unlimited contributions of your time and expertise, including hosting fundraising events in your home.
- Vote. It’s the least you can do.
Bottom line: It’s probably best to leave the campaigning to the campaigners and their committees, and exercise your political muscle in ways other than with your website—and focus your website changes on increasing your business.