Most taxpayers who have filed their own taxes are probably somewhat aware of the “Presidential Election Campaign Fund”. In the most recent version of HR Block’s online tax filing survey, for example, you are prompted to voluntarily select a box for yourself (and your spouse if filing jointly) that says “I want to designate $3 to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.”
And on the new (post-tax reform) IRS 1040 form, you will see the Presidential Election Campaign Fund option on the middle, right side of the form:
But how many people truly know what the Presidential Election Campaign Fund is, what it does, and if it impacts their taxes?
I certainly did not know the full details prior to completing research for this post. And what I found was actually quite interesting…
What is the “Presidential Election Campaign Fund”?
Let’s go straight to the IRS’s 1040 form instructions for a simple answer:
This fund helps pay for Presidential election campaigns. The fund reduces candidates’ dependence on large contri-butions from individuals and groups and places candidates on an equal financial footing in the general election. The fund also helps pay for pediatric medical re-search. If you want $3 to go to this fund, check the box. If you are filing a joint return, your spouse also can have $3 go to the fund.
The fund, started in 1976, and administered by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), does 3 things:
- Matches the first $250 of each contribution from individuals that an eligible Presidential candidate receives during the primary campaign. Nominees can decline the funds.
- Funds the major party nominees’ general election campaigns (and assist eligible minor party nominees). Nominees can decline the funds.
- Funds pediatric cancer research. Funds that used to also go to national party committees (Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee) are now diverted towards research for pediatric cancer through the National Institutes of Health, due to legislation passed in 2014. The funding for research was expected to total $126 million over a 10 year period.
This fund is the sole public funding source for Presidential election campaigns. There are, however, some fairly restrictive matching rules in place. Namely:
- To be eligible to receive public funds, the Presidential nominee of a major party must agree to limit spending to the amount of the grant and may not accept private contributions for the campaign.
- Candidates may spend an additional $50,000 from their own personal funds, which does not count against the expenditure limit.
In the last few Presidential general elections, both major party candidates have declined the matching funds, due to the sheer amount of money that needs to be raised to competitively run a Presidential general election campaign, and the lack of public matching due to a shrinking number of people checking the box on their 1040 filing.
In 2020, only 3.56% of taxpayers checked the Presidential Election Campaign funding box on their IRS 1040 form. In the first year that the box made its way on to the 1040 form (1976), 27.5% of taxpayers checked it. In 2020, the fund disbursed only $2,922,815, while Presidential candidates spent around $2.8 billion! If you’d like to see what candidates have accepted Presidential Election Campaign funds over the years, here is a complete list.
Why such low participation? My gut says that most taxpayers don’t know the correct answer to the following question…
Do Presidential Election Campaign Fund Elections Increase Your Taxes Due or Decrease your Tax Refund?
Does checking the Presidential Election Campaign Fund box result in an increase in taxes due or a decrease in your refund?
The answer is “no”.
The IRS’s 1040 form instructions clearly state, in the last line:
If you check a box, your tax or refund won’t change.
The FEC offers a more detailed answer:
The 1040 federal income tax form asks taxpayers whether they’d like to designate $3 of their taxes paid to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. When taxpayers check “yes,” three of their tax dollars are placed in the Fund. Checking the “yes” box does not increase the amount of tax that taxpayers owe, nor does it decrease any refund to which they are entitled. The tax checkoff is the sole source of funds for the public funding program.
That solves that critical question.
Should you Check the Presidential Election Campaign Fund Box on your 1040 Filing?
Presidential elections (both primary and general) are enormously expensive for candidates to be competitive. Candidates need to fund massive operations that include staff, travel, facility rentals, polling, consultants, operations, research, advertising, and much more.
If you are in favor of more competition in the enormously important component of our democracy that is the Presidency (particularly for more major party candidates in Presidential primary elections and third party candidates in the general election), and/or you are in favor of pediatric cancer research funding, then check the box! It will not personally raise the amount of taxes you owe, or reduce your refund.
Presidential Election Campaign Fund Discussion:
- Were you aware of what the Presidential Election Campaign Fund does?
- Did you know that checking the box on your tax form does not impact your tax filing?
- Have you previously checked the box, and will you moving forward, with this additional information?