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Independent Expenditures: What are they and what are the rules?

The 2010 Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court may have reinvented political spending, but it did not invent the independent expenditure. Organizations—largely through their political action committees (PACs) —have engaged in independent expenditures to elevate their issues and influence—election outcomes for decades. What the Court’s ruling did, was to allow—for the first time—corporations (including nonprofit corporations like 501(c)(4)s and labor unions) to make independent expenditures from their own bank accounts without having to rely on a connected PAC. It also triggered a wave of court decisions and Federal Election Commission (FEC) advisory opinions that redefined how and what money can be spent on elections, invalidated entire sections of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), and helped create a new type of political organization.

This guide explains what an independent expenditure is, briefly addresses how different types of organizations may effectively make independent expenditures, and reviews the rules and federal law that govern them. It ends with Frequently Asked Questions that apply the rules and concepts to common activities in which you may be engaging. Because the rules governing these activities are complicated and evolving, we encourage you to consult more detailed publications like The Connection: Strategies for Creating and Operating 501(c)(3)s, 501(c)(4)s and Political Organizations, available through Alliance for Justice (AFJ) and consult your legal counsel.