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Political Campaign Law

Statutes and court rulings that govern candidates running for public office.

Political campaign laws have been enacted to ensure fair elections and to prevent misleading or false information from being given to voters. Though federal and state laws that govern campaign financing dominate the headlines, there are a host of state laws that a candidate must follow during a campaign. A candidate who violates campaign laws risks criminal prosecution or the FORFEITURE of the public office.

Political campaigns are protected by the FIRST AMENDMENT, but FREEDOM OF SPEECH is not unlimited. For example, state laws prohibit candidates from using the term "reelect" in campaign signs and literature if the person is not the incumbent of that office. Candidates are also barred from making "false claims of support" that falsely state or imply the endorsement of a political party or an organization. Moreover, a candidate cannot state in printed campaign literature that specific individuals endorse the candidate without first obtaining written permission from those individuals. All of these laws speak to fraudulent MISREPRESENTATION by a candidate.

More difficult situations arise when one candidate alleges that another candidate has intentionally misrepresented the position of the other. Open political debate is expected in a campaign but candidates can be prosecuted if the claims are judged to be objectively false. Candidates who retract or withdraw challenged campaign literature may escape any penalties for these actions if done in a timely manner. However, false claims made in the closing days or hours of a campaign will be scrutinized more closely.

Up until the early twentieth century political campaigns were marred by corruption. Citizens traded their vote for money or the promise of a government job or benefit. Progressive Era reformers sought to diminish the power of political machines that used BRIBERY, as well as coercion, to assure the election of their candidates. States have enacted criminal laws that prohibit bribing persons to vote or not vote in an election. For example, a person may transport voters to the polls on election day but may not solicit votes. Persons who directly or indirectly threaten the use of force, coercion, economic REPRISAL, loss of employment, or other harm to compel individuals to vote or not vote for a candidate are also subject to prosecution.

Political advertising on television and radio is also subject to regulation. For example, newspaper print ads, along with radio and television broadcasts, must convey to the public that a message is a paid advertisement. Such laws seek to prevent voters from believing that the message is actually news. In addition, the name of the candidate, party, or organization that paid for the advertisement must be disclosed at the beginning or end of the advertisement. This requirement has been evaded at times when a shell organization is created to disguise the true identity of the sponsor.

Candidates who violate these types of campaigns laws can be prosecuted. A losing candidate typically lodges a complaint with the local district or county attorney, alleging certain violations. If the district attorney finds merit in the allegations a prosecution will follow. This type of prosecution is rare but a candidate who is convicted of a campaign law violation may forfeit the nomination or office in question. However, forfeitures will occur only if it is proven that the candidate committed the act or knew that another person committed the act. Courts will reject forfeiture if the act was trivial or accidental and it would be unjust to declare forfeiture. Even if a court declines to declare forfeiture, legislatures have the right to determine their membership. Occasionally, a legislative body will refuse to seat a person who has committed campaign violations.

Candidates must follow campaign financing rules. State and federal laws authorize public financing of many campaigns. Candidates who accept public financing must abide by the strings that are attached to this funding. In addition, political campaigns must maintain financial records of contributions and expenditures, which are filed at designated times before, during, and after a campaign. Campaign committees may be fined for failing to file reports on time or for substantive violations. The FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION (FEC) oversees campaign financing for federal elections. At the state level a campaign finance board or the SECRETARY OF STATE may oversee this task.


Election Campaign Financing.

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