Candidates running for office in Georgia come under one of two sets of laws, federal and state, that govern the raising and spending of campaign funds. Both federal and state campaign finance laws have been frequent targets of reform efforts.
Candidates for federal office, for example, U.S. Senate or House of Representatives, must follow federal restrictions first established in 1971. In 1974 these restrictions were tightened in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
In the 1990s critics began to charge that the system bred corruption, and a populist agenda emerged to reform the system. In every session of Congress from 1995 to 2001, Senators John McCain (a Republican from Arizona) and Russ Feingold (a Democrat from Wisconsin) sponsored major legislation to overhaul the federal campaign finance laws.
In 2002 a modified version of the McCain-Feingold bill was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush. Entitled the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, the law mandated several changes in the financing of campaigns. It also made recommendations to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the bipartisan board that enforces federal campaign finance laws, on ways to create easier access for the public to review campaign contributions and expenditures.
Candidates running for office are required to report all campaign contributions over $200. Contributions by an individual to a single candidate are limited to $1,000 per election; if, however, the candidate is involved in more than one election (for instance, a runoff), then an individual contributor may give another $1,000 per election. The restrictions on contributions from groups follow the same principle but with higher per election limits: $5,000 from a political action committee, $5,000 combined total from state and local political parties, and $5,000 (U.S. House only) from a national political party. The only exception is the U.S. Senate, which limits contributions by national party committees to $17,500 per campaign (including the primary and general elections). The legislation places similar restrictions on contributions to political parties, thereby greatly limiting their ability to raise large undisclosed contributions from a single entity (such contributions are often referred to as “soft money”). The FEC maintains an extensive on-line record base that is easily searchable by the public.
There are no restrictions on the amount of his or her own money a candidate may spend in a quest for public office, federal or state. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo (1976) that a candidate’s personal contributions are an exercise of free speech and thus are not subject to limitations.
Georgia State Laws
Campaigns for state office, such as governor or General Assembly, are bound by state laws, which differ from federal statutes. The responsibility for ensuring compliance with Georgia’s campaign finance laws falls to the secretary of state. That office compiles and publishes (both on paper and electronically) reports on all registered campaigns. Traditionally, the standards set by the state for candidates under its jurisdiction have been much less restrictive than those set for candidates running for federal office.
The state laws governing elections and campaign activity are found in chapter twenty-one of the Georgia Code, and more-specific campaign finance rules are codified in part five. These statutes restrict the ways a candidate can raise money and set standards for record keeping, use, and distribution of campaign money. For example, a candidate must establish a separate bank account for the receipt of campaign funds, and all contributions over $101 must be disclosed. Georgia’s campaign contribution limits were once among the least restrictive in the nation, but as the campaign reform agenda began to gain momentum at the national level, calls for reform became louder in the state as well. Roy Barnes made campaign finance reform an issue in his 1998 gubernatorial campaign, and in 2000, as governor, he sent legislation to the floor of the General Assembly.
The governor and proponents of reform legislation in the General Assembly sought to bring state limits close to those imposed on federal candidates. As the reform bill made its way through the legislative process, however, it was significantly altered; the enacted version actually raised the amount of money that could be contributed to campaigns. The law sets different limits for candidates running for statewide office and those running for the General Assembly or local office. Candidates running statewide can receive as much as $16,000 from a single source (for example, an individual, corporation, political action committee, or political party) in a single election cycle. The $16,000 is broken into maximum contributions per election event ($5,000 each for the primary and general election and $3,000 for runoff elections that may result from either event). Candidates running for the General Assembly or local office are limited to $6,000 per election cycle ($2,000 each for the primary and general election and $1,000 for runoffs). The new law also requires electronic filing of disclosure reports with the secretary of state.
Georgia, unlike some other states, does not offer candidates any public funds for campaigning. Georgia law also prohibits candidates from paying personal expenses with campaign funds. Leftover funds may be transferred to another campaign, saved for a future campaign, spent to retire campaign debt, donated to a political party, or donated to charity. A candidate will sometimes make a personal loan to his or her campaign with the expectation that once campaign contributions begin to arrive, the loan will be paid back. This practice is legal under both Georgia and federal law.