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June 7, 2016

Understanding Campaign Finance Law

Campaign finance has been a major point of discussion among presidential candidates. How much do students know about the history of campaign finance law?


Social studies, history, government

Estimated Time

One 50-minute class

Grade Level



  1. Watch this Crash Course video entitled ‘Political Campaign Basics’ from the PBS Election Central website starting at 4:50 for an overview of campaign finance law. Read this PBS NewsHour Extra article to learn more about campaign finance history and its role in the 2016 election.
  2. Read this PBS NewsHour article ‘Supreme Court strikes down campaign contribution limits‘ to learn more about how campaign finance law has developed since Citizens United.
  3. Have students choose one of the following key terms to research further: Federal Election Campaign Act, McCain-Feingold Act, Buckley vs. ValeoCitizens United vs. FEC, Super PACs, soft money, or 527 organizations. Students should write down 3-5 bullet points of key information and present their findings to their classmates.
  4. Engage students in a debate about campaign finance in a Socratic Seminar (group discussion focusing on thoughtful and respectful responses in which the teacher only interjects to facilitate the conversation) using the following questions:

Grades 7-9: How does spending money on campaigns qualify as speech? How is giving money to political campaigns related to Freedom of Speech? Who does this benefit? Why?

Grades 10-12: Why would a corporation be motivated to spend large sums of money to support a certain candidate? What are some benefits and risks associated with this practice? Defend your answer.

Extension Activities

Visit Open Secrets and research who is funding Congressional candidates in your state and the presidential candidates. Check out the ‘Interest Groups’ tab. Why would interest groups be motivated to contribute to a particular candidate or political party?

Click here to watch primary sources news footage from the PBS NewsHour on the Citizens United vs. FEC ruling. Do you agree that the ruling “reshap[ed] the political landscape?” Why or why not?

Amanda Wilcox is a graduating senior at T.C. Williams High School. She will attend Wake Forest University in the fall.

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.1.B Follow rules for collegial discussions, track progress toward specific goals and deadlines, and define individual roles as needed.

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.8.1.B Follow rules for collegial discussions and decision-making, track progress toward specific goals and deadlines, and define individual roles as needed.

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.9-10.1.B Work with peers to set rules for collegial discussions and decision-making (e.g., informal consensus, taking votes on key issues, presentation of alternate views), clear goals and deadlines, and individual roles as needed.

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.11-12.1.B Work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed.

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