FAQ: What we talk about when we talk about campaign finance

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As the general election on Nov. 8 draws closer, you're hearing more and more about donor limits, dark money, super PACs and other campaign jargon that attempts to describe the role of money in the U.S. political process.

So ... what do all those terms mean? More importantly, what should you know about campaign finance before casting your ballot?

We've tried to cover these questions and more in this campaign finance FAQ.

What's campaign finance, again?

Basically, campaign financing is the system of people giving money to political causes and candidates, and the candidates and different groups raking in and spending all that cash.

Standard campaigns are an important part of the system, getting causes or candidates and their messages in front of voters. But campaigns aren't the only game in town.

Donors can also give their money to political parties. And these days you're hearing more about outside groups, separate from campaigns or parties raising and spending money. These outside groups have been playing a much bigger role in our elections. There's a reason for that...

Does this have to do with Citizens United?

Remember hearing about that? It was a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that many say allowed corporations to be treated as people in terms of political contributions. But it's a little more involved.

Corporations previously couldn't spend on elections, so by affirming that free-speech protections extend to "independent political expenditures" by nonprofit corporations, for-profit corporations and labor unions, the high court opened the door to the massive amounts of cash we've seen spent in recent elections.

With that change, coupled with the SpeechNow v. FEC ruling that same year, Citizens United dramatically altered the campaign finance landscape. Thanks to those Supreme Court rulings, you now hear the media throw around terms like "dark money" and "super PACs" during election season.

What's 'dark money'?

It's campaign spending by groups that are not required to disclose their donors. That leaves the public in the dark about who funds these groups, hence the term.

These organizations can raise and spend dark money in federal races with few restrictions. And they have been, with tens of millions already spent this year.

However, the picture is different in California races. We'll get to that in a minute.

What are these 'outside groups'?

Broadly, an outside group is any organization that isn't part of a campaign or a political party. 

They include nonprofits and advocacy organizations. Super PACs fit into this bucket of outside groups, since they can pour money into elections so long as their expenses are completely independent of the candidates. Maybe you've heard the term "independent expenditures"? That's where the name comes from: this spending is independent — at least, that's how it's supposed to work. 

Campaigns and outside groups have found "creative ways" to work together in 2016. One super PAC has found a loophole that it believes allows it to directly coordinate with Hillary Clinton's campaign, at least for online communications.

What makes super PACs so super?

What's super is the unlimited amount of money the groups are able to raise and spend. They're allowed to do that because they can't directly give money to candidates.

While super PACs are required to disclose their donors, the savvy skate around these rules by first donating to an organization that doesn't have to disclose its donors. Then, when that organization donates to the super PAC, the source of the money is hidden.

Many super PACs have ridiculous names, something our friends at WNYC had some fun with.

Is other fundraising less super?

Not everyone can raise unlimited amounts of dough. If you want to give your own money to a candidate, you'll have to keep it under set limits.

For California legislative candidates, that limit is $4,200. For gubernatorial candidates, contributions are limited to $28,200.

The contribution limit for presidential candidates is actually lower than either of those — just $2,700 per individual. (But there are many other ways of giving, which have their own limits. It gets complex.)

Here in California, some lawmakers appear to be using "ballot measure committees" to get around contribution limits.

Is political money in California different?

A 2015 change to state regulations required political groups to disclose their donors. It was intended to shed light on dark money in the state, and it means political donations are easier to track in California than at the federal level.

Our state still has "gray money" floating around in elections. That term, from a Brennan Center report, refers to outside groups donating to other outside groups. Voters are left to follow the trail of breadcrumbs.

Another thing that makes California special: campaigns are pricey.

"California has by far the most expensive state legislative campaigns. No state is even close," Thad Kousser, University of California, San Diego, political science professor, told KPCC. One recent example: In a June 2016 primary race to represent Glendale, Burbank and parts of Los Angeles in the state Assembly, a single outside group spent $1.4 million before the primary election.

What do campaigns actually spend money on?

Everything from campaign mailers to polls to yard signs to broadcast advertisements to travel to field offices to insurance to staffing costs, and more.

Running for office isn't cheap. Campaigns and outside groups spent more than $2 billion dollars on the presidential election in 2012.

Where does leftover campaign money go?

One place it can't go is a candidate's pockets. That's strictly prohibited under federal and state law. Campaigns can instead stockpile money for future runs or legal issues, give it to political parties or just return it to donors.

But for super PACs, it's the wild west. As CBS put it, "the leaders of [a super PAC] could legally cash out, buy a yacht, name it 'The SS Thank You FEC' and sail off into the political sunset. Really."

In practice, many super PACs refund their donors.

Where can I find campaign finance information?

Ready to dig in yourself? Here are some primary sources for campaign finance data:

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