Soft money describes financial contributions that are virtually unregulated by federal election laws, yet are used to influence elections. Originally designed to help local and state parties with party-building activities (such as voter registration or get-out-the-vote drives), soft money later was often used to fund “issue” ads for candidates. While “hard money” (monies regulated by the Federal Election Commission) has strict limits on the amount of contributions, soft money typically had no such limits. Soft money accounts regulated by state law could accept money from individuals, corporations, and labor unions even where federal law did not allow such contributions.

To avoid being regulated by federal law, ads funded by soft money could not expressly ask voters to vote for a specific candidate. However, the parties could ...

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