Wisconsin Campaign Finance Glossary

Definitions of terms used in discussing campaign finance in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Campaign Finance Glossary

Posted: November 24, 2003
Updated: August 4, 2016

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Aggregate contribution limit

Note: Aggregate contribution limits for candidate committees were repealed in 2015 Wisconsin Act 117.

Limit on total amount of money a political committee can receive from a variety of contribution sources within a given time period. For example, no candidate committee can receive more than 65% of its allowable budget for an election cycle from PACs and political parties combined.

Also see WECF, contribution limits and spending limit.

Arizona Public Financing Law

Arizona law meant to diminish the corruption that comes from contributions-for-favors in campaign finance by provid ed ing public funds to candidates that were outspent by their privately funded counterparts. Under this law, publicly funded candidates could receive as much as two times their base amount in matching funds from the government when outspent by privately funded candidates and independent groups. In addition to reducing corruption, the law was intended to encourage more people to run for office by making financing a campaign more feasible for a greater number of individuals. However, opponents of the law argued that it created a chilling effect on privately funded candidates and their donors by seemingly inhibiting their ability to exercise free speech rights through campaign spending. Since under the Arizona law an increase in private donations to a particular candidate could increase the amount of public funding a rival candidate receives, critics argued that the law created a disincentive for potential donors to contribute money to political campaigns.

In June 2011, a key portion of the the law was ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision the Court struck down a part of the law that triggered matching public funds to candidates outspent by wealthier opponents or outside special interest groups. The decision, which was made by the same conservative bloc of justices that were the majority in the Citizens United ruling, was consistent with the Court’s prevailing skeptical attitude regarding campaign financing laws and restrictions. The majority opinion in the case cited concerns that the law infringed upon the free speech rights of privately funded candidates, donors, and independent groups, who may be reluctant to contribute to a campaign knowing that it could lead to increased public funding for another candidate.


Ballot status

Parties and candidates that qualify for listing on the fall primary and general partisan election ballots are said to have "ballot status."

Candidates achieve primary ballot status by filing nomination papers with the requisite number of signatures for the office sought. November or general election ballot status is dependent on the primary outcome. Candidates without primary opposition are still listed on the ballot in order to give the public a chance to nominate write-in candidates in their stead. All independent candidates who have met the nomination requirements are listed on both the primary and November ballots.

Parties that do not already have ballot status can obtain it by filing a petition with 10,000 signatures including a minimum of 1,000 from at least three different congressional districts. Once a party has a ballot status it maintains it by having any candidate for partisan statewide office or president receive a minimum of 1% of the total vote for that office.

Elections held in the spring -- including races for judicial offices and Superintendent of Public Instruction -- are nonpartisan. Parties do not appear on the ballot at any time.


Candidate committee (Personal campaign committee)

The account set up by a candidate to raise money for his or her campaign for public office. A committee authorized by a candidate or a candidate's agent to make or accept contributions or make disbursements in support of a candidate's campaign for public office. Candidates cannot raise or spend money until they have registered their campaign committees with the appropriate state agency. See Wisconsin Ethics Commission, Government Accountability Board, State Elections Board.

In practice, incumbents often amass huge "war chests" of unspent campaign funds to intimidate likely opponents, to run for another state office, or to contribute to other candidates’ campaigns, parties or legislative campaign committees. Limits on contributions by candidate committees are somewhat different than those the same as for PACs. See table below.

See also election cycle, hard money, contribution limits, political committee, and political party.

Cash on hand

Money in a candidate’s campaign committee’s bank account at the end or beginning of a reporting period. This may be campaign funds left over from a previous election and, in some cases, funds transferred from a local or federal campaign. Usually refers to money the candidate’s committee has at the beginning of the election cycle. Also referred to as "war chest." Incumbents usually hold the advantage in this area.

Caucus Scandal

 A political corruption scandal investigation in 2001 and 2002 at the State Capitol that was named for the Senate and Assembly Republican and Democratic legislative caucuses, which have since been abolished. The scandal investigation resulted in several legislative leaders being convicted of criminal misconduct in public office, with some serving jail time, for violating state campaign finance laws by using state employees, facilities and resources to work on political campaigns on public time. Response to the corruption led to the eventual aboltion of the State Elections and Ethics Boards and their replacement with the Government Accountability Board.

See Caucus Scandal Archive for more.

See also Wisconsin Elections and Ethics Commissions.

Citizens United

A national conservative non-profit organization founded in 1988 and located in Washington, D.C. It claims to be dedicated to restoring control of the U.S. government to the citizens, and it seeks to reassert the "traditional" American values of limited government, freedom of enterprise, strong families, and national sovereignty and security through a combination of education, advocacy, and grass roots organization. A lawsuit by this organization resulted in a major setback to campaign finance reform.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

A 2010 United States Supreme Court case in which the plaintiff, the conservative non-profit organization Citizens United, challenged various statutory provisions of the McCain-Feingold law, a federal limit on campaign spending by unions and corporations. The decision was 5-4, with the majority opinion in the case arguing that campaign contributions are a form of political speech, the most protected type of speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, so they cannot be restricted. In effect, the Court found that there can be no limit under the First Amendment on campaign spending, even if the source is a corporation or union rather than an individual citizen.

While the majority opinion argued that campaign donations are a fundamental aspect of political speech and therefore heavily protected by the First Amendment, the four dissenters on the Court argued that the majority’s opinion threatened to destroy the integrity of elected institutions everywhere in the U.S.

The ramifications of this Court decision have been widespread. One area that has been affected is disclosure regarding the source of contributions. Since large corporations and unions can donate as much money as they see fit from their personal coffers, it has become much more difficult to track the source of the money. In addition, the funding of political campaigns has become increasingly concentrated to the point that less than 1% of the population funds political campaigns. This outcome disadvantages popular democracy by minimizing the influence of average citizens.


Candidate for office campaigning against an incumbent. See open seat and challenger.

Clean money

Note: The Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund (WECF) and all public financing for state election campaigns were eliminated in 2011 Wisconsin Act 32. The concept of clean money is irrelevant in state elections under current Wisconsin laws.

Money contributed to a candidate without any special-interest strings attached. This money is publicly granted, as opposed to privately donated, and comes from state coffers filled by the taxpayers of Wisconsin who use the income tax check-off. See WECF.


From 2015 Wisconsin Act 117: “A person other than an individual that receives a contribution of money, deposits the contribution in an account held by the person, and releases the contribution to a candidate committee, legislative campaign committee, political party, or political action committee at the direction of the contributor.” Groups can systematically collect contributions from individuals, bundle them together and send one large check to the candidate along with the contributor list. Corporations, professional associations, political parties and other issue groups organize and run conduits. Candidates report conduit contributions as individual contributions under the names of the contributors provided by the conduits.

Contribution limits apply to the individuals giving through the conduit. There have never been any limits on the amounts conduits can transfer to candidates. (See hard money and contribution limits.) For this reason, conduits were originally created to bypass limits on political action committee or PAC contributions. Many of the same organizations that maintain conduits also have PACs.

The only reporting required for the conduit is when a check is sent to a candidate. Unlike other political committees, they are not required to report money amassed in their coffers or any of their administrative expenses.

Constitutional office

Any one of the executive statewide offices listed in the state constitution. They are Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, State Treasurer, Secretary of State, and Superintendent of Public Instruction. All but the last are partisan offices contested in the fall general election. The Supreme Court is considered a statewide, but not a constitutional, nonpartisan office.

Contribution limits

Legal limits on the amounts candidates and other political committees can receive during a given election cycle or calendar year.

There are varying limits on how much individuals or political committees – candidate committees or PACs in this case – can give to a particular candidate for each elected office in a given election cycle but as of 2015 Wisconsin Act 117 there are no longer limits on how much an individual or a political committee can give to all political committees – candidates, parties, LCCs or PACs – in a calendar year or election cycle. (See hard money.)

There are no limits on contributions to candidates from legislative campaign committees, political parties or conduits, the last which are not legally considered contributors. There are also no limits on contributions between the candidates for governor and lieutenant governor of the same political party. As of 2015 Wisconsin Act 117 there are no longer limits on individual contributions to legislative campaign committees or political parties (see table below).

Corporations, associations, labor organizations, and tribes cannot make contributions to candidate committees. These entities can contribute up to $12,000 per calendar year to a political party committee's segregated fund.

Contribution Limits Under 2015 Act 117

Contribution Limit
Candidate Committee
Contribution Limit
Contribution Limit
Governor $20,000 $20,000 $86,000
Lt. Governor $20,000 $20,000 $26,000
Attorney General $20,000 $20,000 $44,000
Secretary of State $20,000 $20,000 $18,000
State Treasurer $20,000 $20,000 $18,000
Superintendent of Public Instruction $20,000 $20,000 $18,000
Supreme Court $20,000 $20,000 $18,000
State Senator $2,000 $2,000 $2,000
Assembly Representative $1,000 $1,000 $1,000
Appeals Judge Populous Districts $6,000 $6,000 $6,000
Appeals Judge Other Districts $5,000 $5,000 $5,000
Circuit Judge Populous Districts $6,000 $6,000 $6,000
Circuit Judge Other Districts $2,000 $2,000 $2,000
District Attorney Milwaukee, Dane Waukesha Counties $6,000 $6,000 $6,000
District Attorney All Other Counties $2,000 $2,000 $2,000
Political Party Unlimited   Unlimited $12,000
Legislative Campaign Committee Unlimited   Unlimited $12,000



Democracy Trust Fund (DTF)

Note: The Impartial Justice Act and the Democracy Trust Fund were both repealed in 2011 Wisconsin Act 32, which also eliminated the mechanisms for all public financing for all partisan state offices and for state Supreme Court races.

Created by the Impartial Justice Act in 2010, the Democracy Trust Fund was a public financing grant for Wisconsin Supreme Court Candidates. Once a candidate’s eligibility was certified by the Government Accountability Board, funds were delivered through a line of credit established by the State Treasurer. Participating candidates received a grant of $100,000 for the Spring Primary Election (if one was held), and $300,000 for the Spring Election. The DTF was funded publicly by a $3 voluntary check-off by Wisconsin taxpayers on individual state income tax returns.

Grant eligibility was largely affected by the number and dollar amounts of contributions that a candidate received. For instance, candidates applying for the grant had to receive qualifying contributions ranging from $5 to $100 from a minimum of 1,000 separate contributors. During the qualifying time period, these contributions hadt to total at least $5,000 but not exceed $15,000. These restrictions also applied to the use of a candidate’s personal funds.

Moreover, to be eligible for this public grant, the amount of private funds that could be legally raised by a participating candidate was limited to $20,000. Any private funds beyond this amount were to be transferred to the Government Accountability Board and deposited into the Democracy Trust Fund. Also, a participating candidate could not accept PAC funds or contributions exceeding $100, with the exception of personal funds.

The GOP controlled legislature defunded The Democracy Trust Fund with the 2011-13 budget signed by Governor Scott Walker on June 26, 2011.


A committee’s general operating expenses. It refers to all expenses incurred in campaigning or maintaining the committee -- fundraising expenses, taxes, campaign staff salaries, advertising, etc. Disbursements do not refer to contributions made to other committees See transfer.


Election cycle

Candidate contribution limits are tied to each candidate’s election cycle.

The election cycle varies by office and even by candidate. It usually coincides in length with the term of office. The election cycle for the state Senate and constitutional offices is never more than four years , two for the Assembly and ten for the State Supreme Court.

Under 2015 Wisconsin Act 117 the election cycle begins for a new candidate when he or she first registers to run for that office; for an incumbent it begins the day her or she assumed office. The cycle ends for all candidates the day before the new term begins.

Prior to 2015 Wisconsin Act 117 the election cycle began on January 1 following the last fall election for those respective offices and ending on December 31 after the current election.

The election cycle may vary for candidates based on when they last ran for office. For example, because Governor Scott Walker was reelected in a recall election in June 2012, his election cycle for the 2014 election began July 1, 2014 rather than January 1, 2011 as would be the case if there had been no recall election.

For the purposes of calculating spending and fundraising during an election cycle, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign treats the start of a candidate’s election cycle as the earliest date on a candidate’s first campaign finance filed report within the 2015 Wisconsin Act 117 defined election cycle, and the end as coinciding with the latest date covered by the last report filed within the 2015 Wisconsin Act 117 defined election cycle.

Election status

Refers to whether a candidate for office is an incumbent, challenger or open seat candidate.

Exempt committees

Political committees that agree not to spend or raise more than $2,000 in a calendar year are not required to file campaign finance reports with Wisconsin Ethics Commission and are said to be exempt. These committees themselves must still register with the commission however.

Before the passage of 2015 Wisconsin Act 117 the limit was $1,000 and the filing agency was the non-partisan Government Accountability Board.


527 groups

Tax-exempt political nonprofit groups that are named after the U.S. Internal Revenue Service code that governs them. These organizations, which include the more commonly known America Coming Together, GOPAC, MoveOn.org and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, can accept and spend unlimited amounts of unregulated contributions on electioneering activities. Those activities include direct mail campaigns, negative issue advertising and voter registration drives. (See the WDC report "Tax-Code Two-Step" to learn more about 527 groups in Wisconsin.)


Government Accountability Board

Enactment of 2015 Wisconsin Act 118, dismantled the model Government Accountability Board, replacing the GAB with a State Ethics Commission to oversee state ethics, lobbying and campaign finance laws, and a State Elections Commission, to oversee state elections law. Most of the members of both of the new commissions are political appointees, who in turn appoint commission administrators, and both entities have a sum certain budget for their investigative work, meaning they must ask the legislators they may seek to investigate for the budget resources needed to conduct their investigations.

The Government Accountability Board was a six-member non-partisan panel of retired circuit court judges created by legislation in early 2007 to enforce the state’s ethics, lobbying and campaign finance laws. The GAB replaced the State Elections Board and State Ethics Board in early 2008 and took over their regulatory activities. Unlike its predecessors, the GAB and its enforcement agency had the authority and the financial means to independently investigate violations of campaign finance and election laws.


Hard money

Any campaign contributions that are regulated, disclosed, and subject to limits. In Wisconsin with the enactment of 2015 Wisconsin Act 117, individuals’ contribution limits were doubled from what the prior limits were, and set at $1,000 to Assembly candidates, $2,000 to Senate candidates and $20,000 to candidates for statewide office within each office’s particular election cycle. Limits are also placed on PACs, but not political parties and LCCs.

Also see soft money, conduit, contribution limits, and aggregate contribution limit.


Impartial Justice Act

Note: The Impartial Justice Act and the Democracy Trust Fund were both repealed in 2011 Wisconsin Act 32, which also eliminated all public financing for all partisan state offices and for state Supreme Court races.

Passed in 2009 this act reformed the way Supreme Court races were financed by creating the Democracy Trust Fund (DTF), which issued public financing grants to Supreme Court Justice candidates. This act also reduced the limit for individual contributions to nonparticipating Supreme Court candidates from $10,000 to $1,000. Nonparticipating candidates were not limited in the total amount of contributions or expenditures that may be accepted or made, but they were restricted in the amount of contributions that may be accepted from political committees.


Current holder of the contested office. Also see challenger and open seat.

Independent candidate

Any candidate in a partisan election not affiliated with a political party that has ballot status.

Independent expenditure

Spending in support of or opposition to a candidate without consultation, coordination or cooperation with the supported candidate. The organization doing the independent spending must file an oath swearing no coordination with the candidate and report any spending within 72 hours after it takes place. Act 118 created one important exception to this rule. If money spent in Wisconsin is no more than 50% of a PAC's entire campaign spending in a year, the PAC no longer has to register with or report its activity to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission. This means, for example, that PACs - especially out-of-state PACs - active in other states or at the federal level need never report their activities to the Ethics Commission even if their spending greatly exceeds that of similar committees active in Wisconsin alone.

Legally, independent expenditures differ from “issue ads” in that the former expressly advocate how the audience should vote and the latter do not.

The most common independent expenditures are for radio and TV ads, newspaper ads, direct mail and phone calls. They urge the voter to vote for or against a candidate and are legally required to show the name of the organization paying for it. Most of these expenditures are concentrated during the period of the most intensive activity -- two weeks before the election.

There is no limit on what a group can spend independently to support or oppose a candidate. They are required to report how much is spent and where the money comes from.

Some PACs prefer making independent expenditures over direct contributions to candidates. Other PACs like to use independent expenditures as a way of giving additional support to candidates beyond that permitted by contribution limits.

Also see independent expenditure committee, Super-PAC and issue ad.

For more on independent expenditures go here.

Independent expenditure committee

A committee formed by a special interest group for the sole purpose of influencing an election or referendum by making independent expenditures, i.e., spending money on a candidate's election without the candidate's cooperation.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, groups interested in making independent expenditures were required to form PACs where they were restricted from accepting corporate or union money.

Unlike a PAC, an independent expenditure committee can take money directly from corporations, unions, associations and Indian Tribes but cannot make direct contributions to a candidate or any other political committee.

Issue ad

An issue ad, in its true form, is defined by its focus on an issue and does not advocate the election or defeat of a candidate. They generally air when the issue is before the legislature. They ask citizens to contact their legislators and urge them to vote for or against a specific bill. Corporate money can be used for these ads and no reporting is required.

However, in 1996 advertisements purporting to be "issue ads" were first used to influence elections. The Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), the Sierra Club and Americans for Term Limits ran ads right before the elections harshly attacking several candidates. Since these ads did not use the magic words "vote for" or "vote against," these groups claimed that they were not required to report this activity or the sources of the money used for them as they would for independent expenditures. A subsequent court decision upheld this position. Now ads indirectly expressing support or opposition to a candidate by encouraging voters to phone the candidate are common features of the campaign landscape.

"Issue ads" by WMC added a new element in the political equation -- unregulated, and otherwise banned, corporate money in Wisconsin elections. See soft money and Super-PAC.

While the use of “issue ads” in elections were upheld, collusion between “issue ad” groups and candidate campaigns was forbidden under state campaign laws. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, on December 2, 2015, determined that restrictions prohibiting a candidate or campaign committee from coordinating with outside groups apply only when the outside group’s message is one of express advocacy. The ruling essentially legalizes outside groups coordinating with campaigns as long as the groups don’t expressly say to vote for or against a candidate. This opens the door for more issue ads in campaigns since there are no limits placed on money spent crafting and broadcasting such messages, and they can now be coordinated with a candidate’s campaign committee.

For more on "issue ads" go here.


John Doe II

The name of the secret investigation into alleged illegal coordination between Republican Governor Scott Walker and several conservative issue advocacy groups during the 2011 and 2012 recall elections.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s conservative majority halted the John Doe II probe in a sweeping decision issued in July 2015 that also declared that coordination between candidates and issue advocacy groups was legal.

In October 2015 Governor Walker signed a bill eliminating John Doe investigations into political misconduct.

In January 2016, the state Supreme Court granted district attorneys in Milwaukee, Dane and Iowa counties permission to intervene in the case to appeal the court’s decision to end the probe to the U.S. Supreme Court.



Money contributed indirectly so as to hide its origins. At its most innocuous, this can happen when a political party, LCC or candidate committee uses money it collects from special interests to make contributions to candidates. At its most pernicious it happens when contributions illegal in Wisconsin are made to organizations outside Wisconsin, such as a political party’s national campaign committee, and then returned to Wisconsin’s political committees under the guise of otherwise legal contributions. Also see soft money.

Leadership committee

See legislative campaign committee.

Legislative campaign committee (LCC or Leadership committee)

The legislative leadership for each party in each house of the legislature operates a special committee that collects contributions, mainly from PACs, and gives money to candidates. Because of legal restrictions on when lobbyists can make contributions to candidates, lobbyists have been among the most common individual contributors to LCCs. These committees allow legislative leaders to take over many of the functions of a political party.

The LCCs are the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee (ADCC), Republican Assembly Campaign Committee (RACC), the State Senate Democratic Committee (SSDC) and the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate (CERS).

Contributions to political parties and to LCCs are not limited under 2015 Wisconsin Act 117, except that political action committees may contribute only $12,000 in any calendar year to a specific political party or LCC.

There are no limits on LCC contributions to candidates or parties.

For more on LCCs see the WDC report Legal Laundering and WDC’s Caucus Scandal Archive.


An individual employed to influence legislation and the administration of laws. In the process of doing so lobbyists may make contributions to elected officials, candidates, parties, and LCCs, but limits are placed on the time in which they can give contributions. Under Wisconsin law lobbyists are only allowed to make campaign contributions between the first day authorized by law for the circulation of nomination papers for a candidate at a general election or special election and the day of the general election or special election. Where legislative candidates are concerned, contributions may be made only if the legislature has concluded its final floor period and is not in special or extraordinary session. Lobbyists, however, may administer conduits which can give contributions at any time. The contribution limits that apply to individuals also apply to lobbyists. See hard money.


Major party

Either of the two parties that now have members holding elective office in Wisconsin, specifically the Democratic and Republican parties. See third party and independent candidate.

McCain-Feingold (Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act)

Enacted in 2002, this federal law restricts campaign spending by unions and corporations. One primary purpose of the act was to curb the increasing role of soft money in campaign financing by banning political parties at the national level from spending and receiving federally unregulated money. Another purpose was to reduce the opportunity for unregulated funds to influence elections through issue ads. Since issue ads ostensibly focus on issues over candidates, the usual restrictions on direct corporate and union campaign spending did not apply. In practice, however, many issue ads were, and continue to be, barely concealed campaign ads.

Many provisions of the law were struck down in 2010 by the U.S. Supreme Court case of Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. In particular, the Court held that areas of the law limiting the activity of corporations in campaign contribution infringed upon freedom of political speech, which is heavily protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The Court held that since corporations should be treated as individuals, and campaign contributions can be equated with political speech, a limit on such activities would be unconstitutional.


Open seat

Legislative district in which no incumbent is running. These are the seats most attractive to new candidates for the legislature as they do not have to raise and spend large sums to overcome the large campaign war chests most incumbents accumulate between elections.

Other income

Official campaign finance reports divide candidate income into three categories: contributions and loans from individuals (including those through conduits); committee transfers (from political parties, PACs, candidate committees, or legislative campaign committees); and other income. Other income is a residual category that includes interest income received on the candidate’s war chest, reimbursements, commercial loans and contributions returned by other committees, and any other form of income that is not considered an individual or committee contribution.


PAC-to-PAC transfers

Contributions from one PAC to another. Often these simply involve a state PAC transferring money to its federal counterpart or vice-versa. There are no limits on the amounts one PAC can transfer to another.

PACs can use these transfers to pool money into a new PAC, or Super-PAC, in order to make independent expenditures or issue ads.

Personal campaign committee

See candidate committee.

Photo ID

See Voter ID.

Political action committee (PAC)

Corporations, labor unions, and organizations can collect voluntary contributions from interested individuals to help elect and defeat candidates. Because corporations and labor unions have been banned from directly contributing their treasury money to candidates since 1907 and 1947 respectively, they create PACs to give contributions to candidates and to make independent expenditures. PACs cannot take money directly from corporations or unions.

Under 2015 Wisconsin Act 118, all PACs must register with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission (formerly the approriate body was the now disbanded Government Accountability Board) and disclose how much they spend and where the money comes from. Act 118 created one important exception to this rule. If money spent in Wisconsin is no more than 50% of a PAC's entire campaign spending in a year, the PAC no longer has to register with or report its activity to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission. This means, for example, that PACs - especially out-of-state PACs - active in other states or at the federal level need never report their activities to the Ethics Commission even if their spending greatly exceeds that of similar committees active in Wisconsin alone.  In cases where the same PACs engage in independent expenditures, the PAC only has to report its spending and the candidates it opposes or supports when it spends more than $2,500 in an election.  It does not have to report its contributors.

PAC contributions are also subject to limits. Limits on giving to candidates for the legislature are the same as for individuals: $1,000 for an Assembly and $2,000 for a Senate campaign (see hard money). The limits on PAC giving for constitutional offices, however, are set much higher than for individual givers: $86,000 for Governor, $26,000 for Lieutenant Governor, $44,000 for Attorney General, $18,000 for Secretary of State, State Treasurer, Superintendent of Public Instruction and Supreme Court Justice.

As for political parties, PACs can give no more than $12,000 to any party committee in a calendar year, but there is no limit on the total amount a PAC can give to all political committees in a calendar year.

Before 2015 Wisconsin Act 117 polticial committees were limited as to the total amount of PAC contributions they could receive during a given election cycle. Candidates could not receive total PAC contributions, including candidate committees, exceeding 45% of spending limits for their office, whether or not the limits were applied. (See WECF).

Before 2015 Wisconsin Act 117 parties could not receive more than a total of $150,000 from all PACs in two consecutive calendar years. Such limits no longer apply.

Also see conduits, political committee.

Political committee

Under Wisconsin law any organization composed of two or more people that makes or receives political contributions whether or not it is engaged in exclusively political activity.

More colloquially, however, it can refer to any committee that makes or receives contributions as part of political activity. Used this way it can refer to political parties, PACs, LCCs, independent expenditure committees, referendum committees, recall committees and candidate committees. It does not refer to conduits because, technically, conduits do not receive or make contributions.

Before raising, spending or transferring money all political committees -- even conduits -- must register with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission, one of the bodies that replaced the non-partisan Government Accountability Board under 2015 Wisconsin Act 118 as of June 30, 2016.

Political party

Voluntary association organized for the purpose of contesting elections.

Like all other political committees, political parties are required to register with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission, one of the successor bodies to the Government Accountability Board, and report their financial activity.

There are no limits on the amounts a party committee can transfer to its affiliates, candidates or PACs and, conversely, no limits on the amount a party committee can accept from any given individual, candidate committee, party committee or legislative campaign committee. Each party committee, however, cannot accept more than $12,000 from the same PAC in a calendar year.

Before passage of 2015 Wisconsin Act 117 there were limits on the total amount of money candidates could accept from all political committees, effectively limiting the amount parties could give. The total amount candidates could receive from PACs (including candidate committees) and parties (including LCCs) was capped at 65% of spending limits. (Also see WECF.) Money from PACs and candidate committees together was capped at 45% of spending limits.

Under the old law individuals could give no more than $10,000 to a political party in a year, and only so long as they did not contribute to other political committees (Also see hard money).

Parties could receive more than $150,000 in total PAC and candidate committee contributions in two consecutive calendar years and no more than $6,000 from any single PAC in a calendar year. There were no limits, however, on the amount parties could receive from other party committees and LCCs.


Recall Committee

A committee formed for the purpose of supporting or opposing a recall of an incumbent state or local elected official. (See recall election.)

Recall Election

Gives voters the opportunity to reconsider their choice of elected official by requiring the official in question to run for office again before the completion of his or her term.

Under Wisconsin law an official must be in office for at least one year before a recall can be called. Once this minimum time in office is reached, citizens can begin a recall by obtaining a number of signatures equal to at least 25% of the vote cast in the most recent election for governor held within the district of the officeholder.

Campaign financing rules are altered in these types of elections. For example, state law removes the $2,000 limit that typically governs individual and political action committee (PAC) contributions to state Senate candidates until the required number of valid signatures is obtained and a recall election is approved. However, once approved, standard campaign contribution limits apply, and any unused portion of the contributions of more than $2,000 received before a recall is approved would be subject to the $2,000 limit. The candidate would be required to return the excess funds to the contributor, donate it to charity, or direct it to the state school fund.

It is important to note that even if a sufficient number of signatures in favor of a recall are gathered within the appropriate time period, this does not necessarily entail that the official in question is removed from office. Rather, he or she is only forced to once again run for election to remain in office.
There are specific requirements governing recalls in Wisconsin which vary greatly depending on the official and his or her corresponding district.

Referendum Committee

By state law, any person campaigning for the defeat or passage of a state-level referendum question and whose group makes more than 50% of its expenditures in a 12-month period (excluding fundraising and administrative expenses) to support or defeat a referendum must register with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission. Such a group must also file campaign finance reports at the appropriate time unless they qualify for exempt status.

Reporting period

Time covered by a campaign finance report.

Every January and July all active political committees registered with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission (previously the Government Accountability Board) must file campaign finance reports recording their financial activity for the previous six months.

During an election year, all candidates in the fall election must file at least two additional reports eight days before the primary and general elections and a third and by the 4th Tuesday in September. Other political committees must also file reports on these dates if they make contributions to election candidates. Candidates in spring elections must file two additional reports eight days before the primary and spring election.

Also see exempt committees.


Segregated fund - Under 2015 Wisconsin Act 117 a political party or legislative campaign committee can accept direct contributions from corporations, unions, professional assocations and Indian tribes up to $12,000 per year as long as they create a "segregated fund" for such contributions. Money collected from such organizations cannot be transferred as campaign contributions to candidates or be used in express advocacy on in a political campaign. Previous to passage of 2015 Wisconsin Act 117 such contributions were illegal.


Loan or donation a candidate makes to his or her own campaign committee. Most candidates report large self-contributions as loans so they can pay themselves back at a later date using campaign funds. It is usually easier for winning candidates to collect enough campaign contributions to reimburse themselves for large self-contributions. There are no limits on the amounts candidates can contribute to their own campaigns.

Before the WECF was repealed by the 2011 Wisconsin Act 32, self-contributions were limited for candidates accepting public financing. The former limits for candidates accepting the old WECF grants were as follows: statewide offices, $20,000; State Senate, $2,000; State Assembly, $1,000. There were no limits on self-contribution amounts for candidates who did not accept the WECF.

The spending limits were $1,078,200 for the Governor; $323,475 for Lieutenant Governor; $539,100 for Attorney General; $215,625 for State Treasurer, Secretary of State, Supreme Court; and Superintendent of Public Instruction; $34,500 for State Senate and $17,250 for State Assembly. Also see WECF.

Soft money

Any money used for political campaigns that is unrestricted or unregulated by campaign finance laws.

“Soft money" at the federal level refers to unregulated, unlimited and undisclosed contributions by corporations or individuals to political parties. Once restricted by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as the McCain-Feingold law, corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals can once again donate tens of thousands of dollars to political parties as a result of the Citizens United ruling. These political parties in turn spend that money on activities that support their candidates as long as they do not explicitly advocate the election of a candidate.

In Wisconsin there had long been limits on such contributions to parties. Corporations and labor unions could not make direct political donations to any political committee, but were required to form PACs in order to do so. Moreover, no PAC could contribute more than $6,000 to any given political party or LCC in a calendar year, nor could parties and LCCs receive more than $150,000 from all PACs in two consecutive calendar years. Individuals could contribute up to $10,000 to a party and LCC in a calendar year but only if they have not contributed to any other political committee or candidates (see hard money).

In the past this meant soft money entered Wisconsin politics through two loopholes.

First, the limit on PAC contributions to parties did not include transfers from party affiliates. Corporations and other organizations could make soft money contributions to the national party committees who would, in turn, transfer the now laundered money to the state party committees.

A second loophole was issue ads. With issue ads, corporations, unions and individuals could make unlimited, undisclosed contributions to support or oppose a candidate’s a campaign without going through the trouble of sending the money out of state for laundering.

2015 Wisconsin Act 117 eliminated the above limits on: a) the total amount of money candidates can accept from all political committees and parties; b) the absolute limits on political committee money; c) the limits on what an individual can give to a political party in a year – regardless of what they contribute to any other political committee; and d) the total PAC and candidate committee contributions a political party may receive in two consecutive calendar years. The limit on what political parties may receive from a single PAC in a calendar year was doubled from $6,000 to $12,000 and corporations, unions, associations and tribes can now give up to $12,000 to a party committee in a calendar year without going through a PAC to do so.

Spending limit

Note: The WECF and all public financing of state elections in Wisconsin were repealed in 2011 Wisconsin Act 32. Since that time, all candidates for elected office must either self-fund their campaign, be dependent on raising funds from other individuals or entities, or rely on 3rd party efforts to get them elected. The spending limits also no longer applied and were subsequently repealed in 2015 Act 117.

Campaign spending limits only applied when all candidates in a particular election accepted the WECF grant or voluntarily filed an oath to abide by them. Even when no candidate abided by them, spending limits were still used as the bench mark for applying aggregate contribution limits for all candidate campaign committees. Spending limits were based on the election cycle specific to the office sought. (Also see hard money, PACs, and political party.)

State Elections Board

The State Elections Board was replaced by the Government Accountability Board in 2008.

The State Elections Board was created in July 1974 as part of the legislature’s reform of Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws. The Board was entrusted with enforcing the state’s election and campaign finance laws.

Members of the State Elections Board were appointed to two year terms that begin on May 1st in odd-numbered years. The Governor, the Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, the Senate Majority Leader, the Senate Minority Leader and the Assembly Minority Leader appointed one member each. Finally, the chair of any political party receiving 10% or more of the last vote for governor appointed one member. In practice only the chairs of the Republican and Democratic parties tended to have the privilege of appointing board members although the Libertarian Party did have a representative on the Board in 2003-2007.

See also State Ethics Board, Government Accountability Board, Wisconsin Elections Commission, Wisconsin Ethics Commission.

State Ethics Board

The Government Accountability Board replaced the Ethics Board in 2008.

The State Ethics Board was created as part of the the Legislature’s 1973 reform of the state’s campaign finance laws. At first its duties were restricted to enforcing the state’s ethics code for public officials and employees. In 1989 it took over the the enforcement of the state’s lobbying laws and regulations.

The Governor appoints the six members of the Ethics Board to six year staggered terms subject to the approval of the State Senate. Members of the board cannot hold any other government position at any level and cannot be members of any partisan organization.

See also State Elections Board, Government Accountability Board, Wisconsin Elections Commission, Wisconsin Ethics Commission.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction

This is a constitutionally created four-year statewide office whose winner is determined in the non-partisan spring elections. The state school superintendent is mostly an administrative job with little power to set state education policies. The officeholder is responsible for administering state and federal education aid which must be approved by the legislature. The superintendent also develops a two-year budget for the department which is subject to approval by the governor and the legislature.


A Super-PAC is created when several political action committees pool money into a new PAC in order to make independent expenditures.

Independent spending by Super-PACs creates a disclosure problem because voters cannot tell who is behind them just by reading the disclaimer that all political communications must carry. When a Super-PAC has contributors from outside Wisconsin, tracking the true sources of the money may be impossible.

Also see soft money.



Candidates or other committees registered with the GAB may "terminate" their registrations if they intend to cease all financial activity, have cash balances of zero and no outstanding debts. Candidates who have terminated their committees must re-register with the GAB if they wish to renew financial activity. Terminated committees differ from exempt committees in that candidates with terminated committees cannot run for office while exempt candidates can. While most terminated committees belong to also-rans and retired office holders, members of the State Supreme Court often terminate their committees at some point during their ten year term only to renew them as they prepare to run for re-election. State candidates running for local offices may also terminate their state committees so as to avoid state reporting requirements.

Third party

Refers to any party with ballot status other than the Democratic or Republican parties, the two major parties.


Contributions from one committee -- political party, PAC, candidate committee, LCC-- to another political committee. Also see PAC-to-PAC transfer.


Voter ID Bill (Assembly Bill 7/Senate Bill 6)

Signed into law as 2011 Act 23 on May 25, 2011 by Republican Governor Scott Walker, this legislation requires Wisconsin voters to present a driver’s license, a state ID, a passport, a military ID, naturalization papers or a tribal identification card when casting a vote at the polls. College students can vote using a university ID only if it has the student’s signature and an expiration date within two years of the card’s issuance. This presentation of a Statutory ID to receive a ballot, the major provision of the bill, will not be required until the February 2012 spring presidential primary election.

Governor Walker cited voter fraud concerns as the motivation behind this bill, yet election fraud is actually quite rare. Critics assert it will in practice restrict the ability of vulnerable populations such as seniors, students, and low-income citizens, in particular minorities, to vote. These groups often do not drive, making them less likely to carry a valid driver’s license.

Other changes as a result of this bill include an extension of the residency requirement before an election from 10 days to 28 days and an elimination of the option for straight party voting.

Upon request, the Department of Transportation must provide adequate identification for voting purposes at no cost to the voter. Also, the Wisconsin Elections Commission is responsible for providing information and outreach to groups that may need assistance in obtaining a satisfactory ID. The legislature paid for the initial costs associated with this bill by raiding the Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund.

Lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of different provisions of the act were filed shortly after enactment and certain provisions were put on hold pending the outcome of the various litigation. Consequently, the basic requirement to present a voter ID in order to vote was first utilized in Wisconsin for a statewide election in the February 16, 2016 spring primary election.


War chest

Leftover campaign funds in a candidate’s campaign committee that the candidate can use at the next election even if running for a different office. See cash on hand.

WECF (Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund)

Note: The WECF and all public financing of state elections in Wisconsin were repealed in 2011 Wisconsin Act 32. Since that time, all candidates for elected office must either self-fund their campaign, be dependent on raising funds from other individuals or entities, or rely on 3rd party efforts to get them elected. The spending limits also no longer applied and were subsequently repealed in 2015 Wisconsin Act 117.

Candidate spending and self-contributions could be limited only if the the candidate accepts government-funded grants for the campaign. The Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund was set up for this purpose.

To be eligible for a grant, candidates had to raise a minimum threshold amount of money in individual contributions of $100 or less, win the primary with at least 6% of the total vote, have an opponent, and adhere to all campaign finance reporting requirements. Also, candidates accepting a grant had to agree to restrict their campaign expenditures and contributions. Any dollar received by a candidate via a WECF grant took the place of a dollar that could be received by that candidate from a special interest PAC. The actual amount of a grant varied depending on the WECF funds available, but a candidate could receive up to 45% of the campaign’s allowable budget (see spending limit). If candidates received the full grant, they could not raise any more from PACs or candidate committees.

Spending limits only applied if all candidates in the race accepted the grant or voluntarily agreed to abide by them. A WECF candidate facing an opponent who was not restricted by spending was not required to abide by them either. The spending limits for each office’s respective election cycle were as follows: $1,078,200 for Governor; $323,475 for Lieutenant Governor; $539,100 for Attorney General; $215,625 for State Treasurer, Secretary of State, Supreme Court and Superintendent of Public Instruction. (Also see self-contribution.)

These limits were capped in 1986 and critics were claiming they were unworkable by the time the WECF was repealed in 2011. The winning candidate for governor in 2010 spent nearly $11 million.

The Government Accountability Board and its predecessor, the State Elections Board, administered the WECF.

The money for these grants came from a $3 check-off on the state income tax, but in the 2011-13 budget the Republican legislature raided the fund to pay for the newly passed Voter ID Bill.

See also clean money.

Wisconsin Elections Commission and Wisconsin Ethics Commission

In 2013 Wisconsin Act 118, the legislature eliminated the Government Accountability Board – a national model for nonpartisan administration and enforcement of state campaign finance, elections, ethics, and lobbying laws. The GAB was created in 2008 after a scandal was discovered when legislative leaders in both parties had allowed legislative staff to perform campaign work on state time and at state expense. The GAB was particularly heralded because it was headed by a panel of nonpartisan retired judges, and was given a budget adequate to the tasks it was empowered to undertake, such as investigations of possible law violations, rather than having to request funding of the legislature for investigations of current legislators, as had been the case.

Act 118 gave oversight of these laws to two new separate agencies: the Wisconsin Elections Commission (elections laws) and the Wisconsin Ethics Commission (campaign finance, ethics and lobbying laws). This change is viewed as a step backwards, because both of the commissions are similar to the two boards that existed before creation of the GAB. They will again lack adequate funding for sensitive investigations of the same legislators making the laws, and are headed by partisan appointees that at best may result in deadlocks in deciding important cases, and at worse, decide them on a partisan basis.

Both commissions were scheduled to replace the GAB after June 30, 2016.

See Government Accountability Board, State Elections Board, State Ethics Board.

Write-in candidate

Any candidate for office who does not have ballot status.