Montana's campaign finance laws ensure that the public can engage with a transparent reporting of money in elections. CERS (the Candidate Electronic Reporting System) makes campaign finance reports publicly available. Candidates and committees ensure transparency in Montana’s democratic processes by periodically filing legally-required campaign finance information as campaign finance reports.
It is the candidate’s responsibility and obligation to understand and comply with all Montana campaign finance laws. While COPP staff is available to provide information and support to all candidates and treasurers, again, it is the candidate who is responsible for ensuring the campaign complies with all campaign finance requirements. This section outlines 1) MCA and ARM campaign finance laws that candidates should be familiar with, 2) basic COPP campaign finance resources for candidates, and (BONUS!) 3) ethics and lobbying laws and guidance.
COPP Campaign Finance Resources for Candidates
- Accounting and Reporting Manual for Candidates (Green book): Each candidate and their treasurer should be familiar with and reference this guide regularly.
- Candidate Guide to Navigating CERS (the Campaign Electronic Reporting System)
- The COPP's Inspection and Exam Process of Campaign Finance Reports Understand what happens once a campaign finance report is filed, and the role of the COPP and candidate in the inspection and exam process.
- FAQ for Closing out Candidate Campaign Accounts & Opening a Constituent Services Accounts
MCA and ARM Legal Guidance
Montana Code Annotated
ARM Administrative Rules of the COPP, Title 44, Chapter 11
- Subchapter 1 Organizational Rule, Procedural Rule and General Policy
- Subchapter 2 Political Committees and Candidates
- Subchapter 3 Filing
- Subchapter 4 Reporting Contributions
- Subchapter 5 Reporting Obligations and Expenditures
- Subchapter 6 Campaign Practices
- Subchapter 7 Surplus and Constituent Accounts
MCA Title 2. Government Structure and Administration: Chapter 2. Standards of Conduct
ARM: Title 44, Chapter 10: Code of Ethics Rules and Guidelines
1. Getting Started: Filing as a Candidate and Navigating CERS
- Accounting and Reporting Manual for Candidates (Green book): Each candidate and their treasurer should be familiar with and reference this guide regularly.
- Candidate Guide to Navigating CERS: Part 1 details how to file a Statement of Candidate (C-1 or C-1A form) in CERS, and Guide to Re-Access a CERS or ePass Account
- Getting Started: Register as a Candidate, Bank Requirements, and Close out a Campaign Account (With details about filing, exploratory campaigns, reporting a filing fee, and more!)
- Campaign Finance 101 Training (38 minute video, training PowerPoint). This training was geared for 2019 city candidates. The overview of campaign finance is applicable for all candidates; please ensure you know your relevant report and other campaign finance dates at this calendar.
-The Campaign Electronic Reporting System (CERS) is a publicly accessible database where candidates and committees report the money they receive and spend to promote and oppose candidates and other ballot issues. Candidate Guide to Navigating CERS details:
* Part 1: Create an Account and File a Statement of Candidate
* Part 2: Create a Campaign Finance Report
* Part 3: Add Contributions in CERS (Add in a candidate loan)
* Part 4: Add Expenditures in CERS
* Part 5: Add Debts in CERS
* Part 6: Add Payments (on Debts and Loans) in CERS
* Part 7: Understand the Summary Tab
* Part 8: File a Campaign Finance Report
* Part 9: Campaign Finance Report and Review Process
* Campaign Finance Resources
2. Disclosing Contributions:
- Candidate Guide to Navigating CERS: Part 3: Add Contributions in CERS
- How to Report a Self-Loan to Your Candidate Campaign Account
- Contribution Limits, Graphic for Contribution Limits Per Election
- Reporting Fundraising Contributions (Quick-reference graphic on Requirements for Paid Communications)
- FAQ on Political Raffles
- Report a Self-Loan to a Candidate Campaign Account
3. Disclosing Loans
4. Disclosing Expenditures:
- Candidate Guide to Navigating CERS: Part 4: Add Expenditures in CERS
- How to Report a Candidate's Personal Expenditure Made on Behalf of the Campaign (Report as a loan)
- Guide: How to Report Paid Communications (i.e. social media ads, yard signs, mailers, newspaper ads, Spotify ads, etc.)
- Attribution Information for Paid Communications (Paid for By requirements), Non-Attributed Materials
- Reporting Stipends and Gifts from a Candidate Campaign (COPP Guidance)
- Graphic on Reporting Social Media Expenditures
5. Guide to the COPP's Inspection and Exam Process of Campaign Finance Forms
- Inspection and Exam Process
6. Closing out a Candidate Campaign Account
- Post-Election (Primary or General) Options for Campaign Accounts
This webpage covers: how to address surplus contributions, remaining debts, constituent services accounts, and how to close out a campaign after an election (for both primary and general elections).
Campaign Finance Graphics
Paid Communications (PDF)
Contribution Limits Per Election (PDF)
Reporting Social Media (PDF)
Reference MCA 13-37 for all report filing timelines (13-37-226) and the time periods covered by reports (13-37-228). Report due dates and training and outreach events are available on the Reporting Calendars page for:
- - 2018 Candidate Report Dates
- - 2019-2020 Lobbying Report Dates
- - 2019 City Candidate Report Dates
- - 2020 Candidates C-5 Report Dates
- - School Candidate Report Dates
- - Committee Report Dates
COMPLAINT PROCESS, DECISIONS, DOCKET, AND PUBLIC INFORMATION
The COPP manages complaints concerning campaigns, lobbying, and ethics. The Commissioner has final determination as to whether a submitted complaint is accepted for filing. If accepted, the COPP conducts an investigation for campaign and lobbying complaints. Please keep in mind that all accepted campaign and lobbying complaints are made public immediately upon acceptance. Investigations are not conducted for ethics complaints. Accepted ethics complaints filed against elected officials will also be made public immediately upon acceptance. Accepted ethics Complaints filed against State of Montana employees are not made public.
Learn more about the complaint process for:
- 1. Campaign Practice Complaints,
- 2. Orders of Non-Compliance,
- 3. Lobbying Complaints, and
- 4. Ethics Complaints.
Click the below links for:
- Campaign Finance Decisions
- Lobbying Decisions
- Ethics Decisions
- Advisory Opinions
- Orders of Non-Compliance
- Response Letters
- Johnson v. Hopkins - COPP-2018-CFP-056
- Eaton v. Olsen - COPP-2018-CFP-035
- Essmann v BCOC - COPP-2018-CFP- 043
- Eaton v. Bishop - COPP-2018-CFP- 044
- GCD v. Buchanan - COPP-2018-CFP-055
- Hart v Pearson et al - COPP-2016-LOB-001 & 002
- Eaton v. McClafferty - COPP-2018-CFP- 045
What is the COPP's role with political signs? And what are the disclaimer requirements for political signs? (see the below information as a PDF)
When it comes to political signs, the COPP has jurisdiction only in upholding and enforcing attribution requirements. In other words, the only oversight over political signs that the COPP has is in ensuring the required “paid for by” attribution message is included, and that the expense is disclosed fully in a campaign finance report. The COPP does not have oversight over when citizens may begin to display political signs or when those signs must be taken down.
All paid campaign materials meant to support a candidate or ballot issue must include a “paid for by” attribution message disclosing the entity that financed the material. This includes—but is not limited to—campaign mailers, radio ads, yard signs, boosted Facebook or Instagram posts, etc. The ‘paid for by’ message must be large enough to be readable and must identify the entity who financed the communication and their listed mailing address. Attribution requirements vary between candidates and committees. For more information, familiarize yourself with attribution requirements and how to report paid political communications.
If the material is too small for the disclaimer to be included (e.g. with a text, keychain, etc.), a copy of the material and the attribution information must be sent to the COPP to be approved for use to avoid potential campaign practices complaints. This information is publicly accessible on the COPP’s website. For more details on non-attributed campaign communications, review this information. More guidance on the “paid for by” attribution requirements is available on the COPP’s website. See Mont. Code Ann 13-25-225 and 44.11.601(2) ARM for the full attribution requirements and applicability.
What is the role of local government in determining political sign timelines? (e.g. when signs can go up and must be taken down?)
The Office of Political Practices often receives phone inquiries regarding the timeline for placing political signs. As stated above, the COPP has no jurisdiction over when political signs may be displayed, and does not know the specific requirements for each Montana municipality. Local governments (I.e. a city council or county commission) are responsible for regulating when political signs may be placed and when they must be taken down. Contact your local city or county government for more information.
The Montana Department of Transportation is responsible for sign regulations along Montana roadways or right of way (see the below information for more details).
What is the role of the Montana Department of Transportation (MTDOT) in regulating the placement of political signs on Montana roadways?
(This information comes from a 2012 notices from the MTDOT's Right of Way Bureau)
Political campaign committees, and candidates are being reminded again about restrictions on where their signs can be placed. Signs on highway fences, utility poles, and otherwise on state right of way are not allowed and are being removed by Department of Transportation crews.
With landowner’s consent, political signs may be placed alongside the highway on privately owned land. Many signs are being placed in ditches or on the highway side of fences. State crews must remove them and store them until the owners can pick them up. Candidates, and their supporters should make sure their signs are placed on private property.
Federal law requires that any sign intended to be read from the highway must be regulated by the state. In Montana, as in other states, controlling signs is the responsibility of the Department of Transportation. Failure to control signs brings the threat of federal sanctions and can disrupt highway improvement projects.
It is unsafe, and illegal to drive or park in a ditch along a highway to install a sign on private property. Within 30 days following the applicable election the signs should be removed.
The candidates' cooperation in adhering to the regulations, and statutes will benefit the Department of Highways, and the taxpayers of Montana.
- Right of Way Bureau: (406) 444-6055, www.mdt.mt.gov/mdt/organization/precon.shtml
- Rob Stapley, Bureau Chief – 406-444-6063 / Gabe Priebe – Traffic and Safety Bureau Chief – 406-444-9252
What guidance do the Administrative Rules of Montana offer on political signs (see 18.6.246, ARM)?
(1) Signs promoting political candidates or issues shall be placed on private property only and cannot be placed without the permission of the property owner. Political signs must comply with sign standards found in 75-15-113, MCA, and ARM 18.6.231, unless otherwise specified in this rule.
(2) Political signs must not:
(a) be placed on or allow any portion to intrude in the public right-of-way or on public property; and
(b) be placed within 100 feet of any entrance to the building in which a polling place is located.
(3) Political signs will not be considered in determining the spacing required between conforming off-premises outdoor advertising signs.
(4) Political signs must be removed within 14 days following the applicable election. The department shall notify the landowner of illegal signs which are not removed within 14 days. The signs shall be removed by the department 24 hours after notification to the landowner. The department shall retain removed political signs for five working days after notification of removal before their destruction. The sign owner may retrieve the signs during this period.
(5) Signs that pose a traffic hazard may be removed by the department without prior notification to the sign owner.
(6) Political signs do not require permits and are not subject to permit fees.
History: 75-15-121, MCA; IMP, 75-15-111, MCA; NEW, 1996 MAR p. 1855, Eff. 7/4/96; AMD, 2008 MAR p. 2476, Eff. 11/27/08; AMD, 2012 MAR p. 185, Eff. 1/27/12; AMD, 2016 MAR p. 1440, Eff. 8/20/16.
The COPP held a 2019 training specifically for city candidates on July 18, 2019. You can view the training, which gives an overview of campaign finance, here as a video (38 minutes) or as a PowerPoint.
Q1: I would like to run as a candidate for an elected public office in my city. What documentation do I need to file?
A: Candidates seeking election to a city office must file a C-1A Statement of Candidate with the COPP to appear on an official election ballot. The C-1A Statement of Candidate must be filed “within five (5) days after receiving or spending money, appointing a campaign treasurer, or filing for office, whichever occurs first.” There is no charge or filing fee to register as a candidate with the COPP. Candidates must also file a Declaration for Nomination and Oath of Candidacy with their county elections administrator. Please visit the Secretary of State’s website for more information on how to file as a candidate for public office in the state of Montana.
Q2: Can I use campaign funds to pay the filing fee required to file as a candidate with the county elections office?
A: Yes, candidates may use previously-raised campaign funds to pay their candidate filing fee with the county elections office. Candidates may also pay this fee out-of-pocket using personal funds.
Q3: What are the contribution limits, and how do they apply to me?
A: All candidates running for elected office in Montana are subject to contribution limits, which detail the maximum amount a candidate may accept from individuals and political committees. Specific contribution limits applicable to the 2019 city elections can be found on the COPP’s website. Keep in mind that a candidate’s own contributions to their campaign are exempt from contribution limits; there is no limit to what the candidate may contribute to their own campaign. Also, candidates cannot accept contributions from corporations or unions (§13-35-227, MCA).
Q4: When filling out the C-1A Statement of Candidate, it asks me to indicate if I am a ‘B’ or ‘C’ box candidate. What is the difference between a 'B' and 'C' box candidate?
A: On the C-1A Statement of Candidate, the candidate must indicate if they are a ‘B’ or ‘C’ box candidate. 'B' box candidates "certify that I expect the total amount of contributions or expenditures will not exceed $500 (including personal funds)" for their campaign and are not required to file C-5 campaign finance reports with our office. Simply put, candidates can maintain 'B' box status and remain exempt from campaign finance reporting requirements if the combination of contributions received by the campaign and expenditures made does not exceed $500.
'C' box candidates certify that "I expect to receive contributions and/or make expenditures exceeding $500 (including personal funds)" and therefore must file C-5 campaign finance reports on the appropriate schedule. So, if the candidate’s combination of contributions received and expenditures made exceeds $500, that candidate would be a ‘C’ box candidate and would need to file C-5 campaign financial reports according to schedule. If a 'B' box candidate exceeds $500 in expenditure and contribution activity, they will need to file an amended C-1A Statement of Candidate indicating they are now a 'C' box candidate and file an initial C-5 report within 5 days of exceeding the $500 threshold. Please note that personal funds are included in the $500 threshold, as is the filing fee.
Q5: I am a ‘C’ box candidate (will exceed $500 in contributions and expenditures) who has filed with the Commissioner of Political Practices to run for public office. When are my C-5 campaign finance reports due?
A: ‘C’ box candidates are required to periodically file C-5 campaign financial reports disclosing contributions received and expenditures made by the campaign. The first required C-5 report for the 2019 city elections will be due August 6th, with the full reporting calendar available on the COPP’s website. For tips on what information is required to be included within these C-5 reports, please see the COPP’s Candidate page.
Q6: What is the designation between primary and general elections? And do the contribution limits apply to both cycles?
A: The primary election and the general election are defined as two separate elections under Montana statute, and the 2019 contribution limits apply to both. Under the requirements of §13-37-216(5), MCA, "election" means the general election or a primary election that involves two or more candidates for the same nomination.
If there is no contested primary, there is only one election to which the contribution limits apply. If there is a contested primary, then there are two elections to which the contribution limits apply. For example, a candidate who is involved in a contested primary election could accept the maximum contribution limit from a donor during the primary. Then, and after advancing to the general election, the candidate could accept the max contribution from the same donor again for the general election. If the candidate is not involved in a contested primary and is advancing straight to the general election, the candidate could only receive one max contribution from that donor because they are only participating in one election.
Q7: My campaign is planning on holding a fundraiser in my community where contributions will be collected from the group. What are the specific reporting requirements?
A: Before hosting a mass collection fundraiser event, keep in mind that any individual who donates $35 or more IN THE AGGREGATE (in total) to the campaign must have their name, address, occupation, and employer information listed on C-5 finance reports. The COPP staff recommends you collect this information from all donors, regardless of the size of their donation, and maintain accurate records to easily track each contributor's total contributions to date so that you already have it on hand when a donor hits that $35 threshold.
For individuals who provide a contribution at this type of event and have not met the $35 threshold, this information is not required. The campaign can report the total amount of these under $35 contributions collected at the event as a lump sum contribution in the fundraiser section of the C-5 report, along with 1) the date of the event, 2) the event’s location, 3) a brief description of the event itself, and 4) the approximate number of attendees. For further guidance in reporting contributions received at fundraiser events, please reference this guide.
Remember that candidates cannot accept anonymous contributions. If you do not know the source of a contribution made to your campaign, the contribution should be donated to charity.
Q8: My campaign plans on holding a raffle fundraiser, with various items donated to the campaign by local businesses serving as the prizes. What are reporting requirements?
A: Like with any other fundraiser or mass collection event, any contributor who donates $35 or more to the campaign needs to have their name, address, occupation and employer information included on C-5 reports. Contributions of less than $35 can be reported as a lump sum amount with the date of the event, its location, a brief description of the event, and the approximate number of attendees.
Please note that with a raffle event, any items donated to the campaign must be listed as in-kind contributions. Donated items must be reported for their fair market value (or best estimate) from the individual or entity who donated them. For more guidance on raffles, please see this 2008 advisory opinion issued by Commissioner Unsworth.
Q9: Can my campaign accept a contribution from a business?
A: It depends. Simply, it will always be easiest for a candidate to accept a contribution from an individual, and not a business. For example, if Russell, who runs Russell's Paint Supplies Emporium, writes your campaign a check from their personal account (and not their business account), this is reported as an individual contribution.
If Russell gives a contribution from their business account, this would need to be reported in Schedule A as an individual business (under the "entity" dropdown tab) contribution. Russell's Paint Supplies Emporium must then file as an incidental committee by 1) filing in CERS as a C-2 Statement of Organization (the C-2 must be filed within five days of any of these activities: 1) appointing a campaign treasurer, or 2) making an expenditure to support or oppose a candidate or ballot issue). Russell's Paint Supplies Emporium must then also file period C-4 incidental committee finance reports. The C-4 discloses contributions received and expenditures made by incidental committees.
Again, accepting a contribution from a business requires the business to file as an incidental committee, so candidates should encourage their contributors to use personal checks.
Keep in mind that all corporate contributions, under any condition, are illegal for a candidate to accept. While corporations and unions are allowed to make independent expenditures related to a candidate, they are prohibited from making direct, in-kind, or coordinated contributions to a candidate, 13-35-227, MCA. Earmarked contributions by a corporation or union to a person as a contribution designated for a candidate’s campaign are also prohibited.
If your campaign inadvertently accepted a corporate contribution, the funds must be returned immediately upon discovery. To disclose this in CERS, the contribution would be reported as a business contribution in Schedule A, and then the amount is cancelled out by noting the amount refunded in Schedule B as an expenditure. A photocopy of the refund should be emailed promptly to the COPP at email@example.com.
More information about illegal contributions (e.g. corporate and union contributions) is detailed on page 15 of the Accounting and Reporting Manual for Candidates and Treasurers.
Q10: I forgot my ePass login information or I cannot access CERS with my new ePass account. How do I regain access to my CERS profile?
A: Reference this guide to regain access to ePass and/or CERS. It’s also important to know that ePass is a State of Montana application that is not unique to the COPP but is used as a portal to access a variety of statewide resources. While users must use ePass to log into their CERS profile, the two systems are different. Whereas CERS is administered directly by the COPP, ePass is not.