The Federal Election Commission’s approval of the Colbert Super PAC has turned some heads, and it also has plenty of people wondering just what a PAC is and does.

With names that all seem to include “America” and references to apple pie, it’s no wonder people are confused. (If you want to get in on the naming action, try the Sunlight Foundation’s PAC name generator.)

A recent ProPublica article explains the various types of political action committees and how their campaign money can be spent (and hidden):

  1. PACs can accept donations of up to $5,000 from individuals and pass the money along to both candidates and parties.
  2. Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited sums of money from individuals, corporations, unions and other groups. They can’t donate directly to candidates but can promote them and attack their opponents, as long as they don’t coordinate with any candidate or political party. In 2010 Super PACs spent more than $80 million.
  3. 527s can either register as a PAC and give directly to candidates or focus on specific issues and then raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. While the rise of the Super PAC may draw attention away from 527s, 527 groups still spent more than $415 million during the 2010 election.
  4. 501(c) organizations include (c)(3) charities, (c)(4) social welfare organizations, (c)(5) labor unions, (c)(6) business leagues and trade associations, and others. As we know, (c)(3)s are not allowed to advocate for or against a candidate, but other 501(c)s are, so long as their primary purpose is not politics. And their 501(c) status means they don’t have to disclose their donors.
  5. Combinations linking a Super PAC and a 501(c)(4) allow donors to give to the (c)(4) which can then give to the Super PAC. Although the (c)(4) is identified as the donor to the Super-PAC, the donors to the (c)(4) are kept secret.

PACs and Super PACs are required to disclose their donors, but lags in reporting as well as loopholes (like the combination described above) often allow donors to stay hidden. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions were allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose candidates, allowing even greater amounts of cash to flood the political system.

All of this money is spent in an effort to get voters to cast their ballots for or against candidates and ballot measures. And while money can certainly buy ad space, don’t forget that your nonprofit also has the power to influence the political landscape by helping to engage the entire American electorate–starting with your clients and community. Visit our website to learn more about how your nonprofit can strengthen our democracy through nonpartisan voter engagement.

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