Campaign Law Basics with Deanna Mool CW 06- Transcript

Campaign LawJohn Tsarpalas: Well, I’m here with my friend and attorney, Deanna Mool. Deanna is an attorney in Springfield, Illinois, which is the state capital. She’s an election law specialist for over twenty years. She’s worked with legislative caucus, with state party, and many candidates. So welcome to Commonwealthy podcast.

Deanna Mool: Thank you.

John Tsarpalas: And I’ve got a whole list of questions I’d like to run through. We want to keep it fairly general because election law tends to be different in every state. But there are certain concepts that carry across state lines.

So let’s start off with where does someone who is interested in running for office know where to report to? It’s not necessarily the state board of elections. Maybe it’s the county board of elections. Maybe there is something even more local. How do they start? If you were running for school board, where would you start? Let’s start with that idea.

Deanna Mool: You know, it’s kind of an interesting question because it is dependent upon what office you want to run for. You can actually for something like a school board race just check with your local district school board office. Frequently they’ll have the petitions there for you to fill out.

But a really good place to start for a broader scope of office- if you’re not going to want to run statewide, you’re going to want to start in your county clerk’s office or the equivalent, whoever your county election official is. They’re going to be able to provide you with petition forms and maybe general information. Again, they’re not going to provide you any legal advice. And when start asking questions like that, they’ll probably say, “Thanks, but I can’t help you any further.”

Also, websites are great. I mean, any more you can sort of do this research by just getting online. And if you type in candidate for office and the office you want to run for, a lot of times your state information will pop up.

But you’re going to need to figure out what kind of a petition you need to file and how many signatures you need on that petition to get on the ballot, the deadlines for starting to circulate that petition and the last day that you can circulate, and the day you have to have that petition filed.

You also can’t forget that there’s a lot of time other documents that go with the petition. In Illinois, for example, you would have to file a statement of candidacy, some general information form that the state board of election requires, and perhaps a loyalty oath if you would like to do so. And again, that’s going to be very state dependent.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. You mentioned you could probably get the petition forms from the local school board or whatever. Do they actually have the form and it’s all made out and you just fill in your name? Or do you have to generate the form and go to an attorney to do that?

Deanna Mool: It’s going to be very district dependent. I know locally here you could actually go to a school board office and they will have a partially filled out form. I think the thing that you have to be careful of is they can’t give you legal advice. And I think a lot of them know that, but sometimes I think they get a little too helpful. Then if there’s a problem you can’t rely on necessarily what they told you if someone challenges your petitions. So you have to be kind of careful.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. Let’s talk about some other things. In Illinois, we’ve got so many different bodies it gets confusing. So I’ve got a candidate right now that wants to run for the local junior college board.

Deanna Mool: Okay.

John Tsarpalas: Again, would he go to them to find his forms and petitions?

Deanna Mool: No, I think at that point you are really looking at a- again it depends on what office you are running for. When you are talking about something like a junior college board, it crosses several counties, right?

John Tsarpalas: Right.

Deanna Mool: So you are either going to want to start maybe your county clerk’s office. But again, you might have to go to the state board of elections to get the proper forms for that because it covers more than one county. Same with a state representative office that covers more than one county.

I think that, at least in Illinois, you can get almost any form for any office through our state board of elections. So you are always safe going there. If you want to visit someone, have a conversation with someone, you might be able to go a little more local.

But, again, there are statutory requirements. How many signatures you need is going to be statutory. So I think your safe bet is always to talk to an election law lawyer and they’re going to lead you in the right direction. They can avoid a lot of those problems were you start circulating petitions and you realize that something is wrong, and you’ve got to start circulating again. I have seen that happen where a client has come in, they’ve got the wrong date of the election, they don’t have the right party in there, they started circulating too soon, and you end up throwing all those out, starting over. And you look kind of like you didn’t know what you were doing when you start off.

John Tsarpalas: Yeah, I’ve been involved… I came into something late. We threw them all out. We had like one week to get it done. It was… Yeah.

Deanna Mool: It’s miserable.

John Tsarpalas: It’s miserable.

Deanna Mool: It’s miserable.

John Tsarpalas: It is miserable.

Deanna Mool: It can be done, but you know… And if you get in a situation where you are starting to pay circulators, I think those petitions always end up with a higher error rate and they’re clearly more scrutinized. If a board finds out about them, they look at that a lot more carefully.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. So you’ve got your form. You’ve been to an attorney. You know the form is in good order. You are out circulating. I’m sure the laws vary on who can circulate depending on the state and maybe county, local laws. Basically, what? You have to be a resident? You have to be an American citizen? Who can usually circulate? Let’s talk about Illinois law.

Deanna Mool: Illinois law says one thing and the court cases say another. So this is another one of those situations where you may not know unless you actually go out and check. I think they’ve amended the law to match the court case now. But it was not cohesive for a long time. But in Illinois, all you have to be is a U.S. resident over the age of eighteen. You used to have to be- and this is still true in some states- a qualified voted in the jurisdiction where the office serves.

John Tsarpalas: Right.

Deanna Mool: And so if you had, you know, you talked about a community college board. If you were running for the community college or junior college board, the circulator would have to be somebody that lives in that county. That’s not true in Illinois anymore. Now all they need to be is a resident of the United States.

John Tsarpalas: Okay.

Deanna Mool: And over the age of eighteen.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. I actually was involved in a court case about circulators crossing a state line. Anyway, it was a long battle but we won and that was wonderful. That was in a petition for a referendum act.

So you’ve got your petition. You start circulating. Obviously you want to get more signatures than the required. Sort of the rule of thumb is get about double of what you need, but that’s not necessarily true. Because what can happen? After you file, there’s a whole process of people…

Deanna Mool: Right.

John Tsarpalas: I’ll let you take it.

Deanna Mool: You have a filing deadline. And then there’s a period of time- in Illinois it’s five business days; it can vary by state- where people can come in and look at the petitions you filed. And what typically you do is you start sampling to see if those people are actually registered to vote in the district where you’re running.

We talked about that a circulator, at least in Illinois, can live anywhere in the country as long as they are over eighteen and a citizen. But the voters actually have to be voters in the district in order to sign the petition. So what you find is if somebody’s been circulating at Wal-Mart, and so you look at the petition sheet and there’s ten different cities all on the same petition sheet. They’re going to get a lot of people that will not really register to vote, but they’ll just sign the petition because they don’t like to say no.

John Tsarpalas: Right.

Deanna Mool: So when you are looking through the petitions and you start seeing different cities on the same page, you sort of start questioning a little more. Were they are going through a registered voter list? Were they just standing at, you know, Wal-Mart or Penney’s or wherever or the train stop getting signatures? And are those valid?

And you are going to get hits. People are going to sign those petitions that are not registered to vote or they don’t understand that they don’t live in the jurisdiction where this office serves. So those signatures don’t count. So the reason we always advise candidates to get at least twice as many signatures is because you don’t know how many of them are going to get thrown out.

John Tsarpalas: Right. And what I’ve found works best is if you go to door to door with a list of voters that you know are registered.

Deanna Mool: Certainly.

John Tsarpalas: You’re going to get much better signatures than if you are standing at a train station or, as you say, in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Because you are going to know exactly where they live. You know they are registered. You are going to get a much better…

Deanna Mool: I agree with all of that advice. And then you know going in. A lot of times candidates these days we’ll actually go through and we’ll look at their petitions. And we’ll figure out how many are going to be invalid before we ever file them just to make sure they have enough. Again, that’s a time and money thing. If you have time before you file the petitions, there is nothing wrong with doing a random sample of your own petitions and saying, “How many of these are going to be good?”

John Tsarpalas: Right. And I’ve actually been involved in going through other people’s petitions to knock them off the ballot and I was successful. We found that there were a lot of people who weren’t registered and signed.

Deanna Mool: Right.

John Tsarpalas: Or not in district. And districts are so gerrymandered here in Illinois that people don’t know if they are in the district or not. I mean, they are signing in kind of like good faith. They think they are in the district, but they are just not certain.

Deanna Mool: Right.

John Tsarpalas: So there’s a whole lot of that to go on. And that’s a whole other podcast about how to knock people off the ballot and things like that.

So petition is just really the first step. Then you are a candidate. When are you officially a candidate? When do you have to file more paperwork about your campaign and fundraising and all of that kind of stuff?

Deanna Mool: You know, again, very dependent on state law. But you are a candidate when the ballot is certified by the appropriate jurisdiction. It could be the county in Illinois. It could be the state. Other states are the exact same way. In a municipal election, it would be the municipalities certifying the ballot in some cases, like I think Chicago certifies their own ballot. But at most levels, it’s the county that certifies the ballot. So you are officially a candidate.

You have to keep in mind at that point that you might have financial disclosure obligations that you need to undertake, which is if you have a committee and it’s doing fundraising for example. In Illinois, once you’ve raised three thousand dollars, you have ten days to have your file your political committee financial information with the state board of elections and start filing that information. There are periodic reports that are required. And again, very state law dependent.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. So let’s just talk Illinois for a minute. So I’m running for this community college board and I raise three thousand dollars or I’ve spent three thousand dollars. Is it the same thing? Does it matter? It triggers at three thousand dollars an action, right?

Deanna Mool: Either way, right.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. Alright.

Deanna Mool: Raise or spent.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. And then am I filing with the county or am I filing with the state? And I’m at this level for community college.

Deanna Mool: If you are talking about a multi-county district like a community college board, in all likelihood you’re filing with the state.

John Tsarpalas: Okay.

Deanna Mool: If it is something like state rep, even though it’s in one county, it’s still going to be with the state. So like a local school board race, I think for the most part now we’re pretty much filing at the state level and the counties are picking those up. Before the electronic age, you had to sort of dual file or file in the county. But I think pretty much now you can file just online with the state board of elections and the counties will pick up that filing.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. And this can all be done online electronically?

Deanna Mool: Correct.

John Tsarpalas: Okay.

Deanna Mool: It’s only online and only electronically with the state board of elections now. There’s really no paper filing. And I would tell you that you need to get somebody that knows what they are doing. That software is not particularly intuitive. It has glitches. Or you’re going to develop a really good working relationship with their help desk.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. I hope they have a good one.

Deanna Mool: They are usually very helpful when you call.

John Tsarpalas: Are you the candidate doing the filing or do you have to have a treasurer? And is the treasurer the one liable? How does that all work?

Deanna Mool: Again, the treasurer is more liable if you are running for a federal office than a state office. But yes, the treasurer is responsible for filing the reports. And the treasurer can be the candidate if it’s a really small campaign. It may all be the same person. It’s not a super idea because the candidates get busy.

As you get closer to the election date, those filing periods in most states get really condensed. You’re filing, you know, expenditures and contributions and sometimes within forty-eight hours, sometimes within five business days. There are different deadlines depending on what you are doing.

So I think again it’s good to have an advisor at that point that actually knows those deadlines and you don’t miss them. Because sometimes they are significant fines, where they just fine you the amount of the contribution if it wasn’t properly disclosed in the thirty days before the election. So you really do need to know what you are doing with financial disclosures as the time for the election comes around.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. And something that’s come up every time I’ve started a campaign. I go to the bank to open a bank account and they want a federal tax number.

Deanna Mool: Correct.

John Tsarpalas: And I say, “This is not a business; this is an election campaign.” But you’ve got to have a tax number.

Deanna Mool: Yes.

John Tsarpalas: So tell me how this works and what you’re supposed to do.

Deanna Mool: You’ve got to have an EIN, and they are not very hard to get. You can get them online. You go to the IRS website and you fill out a W-4, not a W-2. It’s a W-4 form (this was the wrong form number. The proper form is SS-4) that you fill out online. You tell them that you’re a campaign.

And, you know, I think the thing that people forget to do is go back and close these campaign accounts. Because I think after you are done with it, you probably want to do that when you done serving in public office just so the IRS isn’t hounding you to figure out if you need to be filing income tax returns for the campaign.

You don’t have to incorporate. Some people choose to. They are worried about campaign folks out there, you know, driving, working on behalf of the campaign. You know, if you are talking about a U.S. Senate race, people are incorporating; they are getting insurance. If you are talking about a school board race, it’s a lot different. Nobody’s got the kind of financial resources typically to incorporate their campaign and get insurance for the campaign. And you just hope and pray that everything goes well.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. Because I’ve always had a hitch there. You go to the bank and they look at you kind of cross-eyed. And you’ve got to talk them through it, but you get there.

Deanna Mool: Right. You got to go get the tax ID number, EIN.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. And are you filing a tax return every year then?

Deanna Mool: No. For a local race, you’re not going to be at that financial level. But I don’t know the file limits off the top of my head. I’d have to look for 529 organizations. But you basically are looking at a campaign. And you’re not going to have income. In particular it’s kind of more like a nonprofit. So typically most campaigns don’t file any tax returns.

John Tsarpalas: Right. I’ve never been in a campaign that filed a tax return.

Deanna Mool: Well, just because most of them don’t have investment income.

John Tsarpalas: Right.

Deanna Mool: You know? I mean, I assume that there are some larger national campaigns that probably have fifty grand a year or more in investment income.

John Tsarpalas: Okay.

Deanna Mool: But most campaigns don’t buy CD’s. They spend money on advertising.

John Tsarpalas: Right. If you’ve got that kind of money…

Deanna Mool: They’re not playing the stock market.

John Tsarpalas: No.

Deanna Mool: It’s in and it’s out and out and out.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. So you’re up and running. You’ve got your bank account. You’re a candidate. You’ve made your first filings. But let’s talk a bit more about that treasurer’s role.

Deanna Mool: Sure.

John Tsarpalas: The treasurer can sign all these documents? Is then liable for all of this?

Deanna Mool: Correct.

John Tsarpalas: Right.

Deanna Mool: I think the important thing is that you want to have somewhere where the mail is coming that the treasurer can see it quickly. You know?

John Tsarpalas: Okay.

Deanna Mool: I think what happens is you’ll get a contribution. Maybe it is from a PAC, and the PAC will report it as being made the day they write the check. And then you don’t pick up the mail or whatever, and the treasurer is reporting it two weeks later as being received. Now if you can prove that you didn’t receive it until then, that’s fine. But if somebody files a complaint against your campaign disclosures- you didn’t do it properly or you didn’t do it timely- then you are fighting that constantly.

So what I see as a problem is that there were checks sitting there that nobody knew about, which is kind of crazy because you want the money for the campaign. You don’t want it sitting in a post office box somewhere. So people get busy. They don’t check their mail.

But I think the other thing is that the treasurer just needs to understand their obligations. Illinois has a pretty good handbook that the state board of election puts out with the filing deadlines in it. So as long as you figure out the software, you get those dates on your calendar, and you don’t miss them, you can get it done.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. And you make mistakes. I mean it’s basically fines that are levied against the campaign, that type of thing?

Deanna Mool: Yeah, in Illinois I think it’s more civil fines than anything criminal. I think the federal system, if you are running for Congress, U.S. Senate, U.S. representative in Congress, President, those have, you know, a little bit more criminal activity than the state campaigns do.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. Now we have campaign finance limits here in Illinois now. Does that same limit happen at the county level, or will there actually be local (possibly in Illinois) limits? Do counties have limits?

Deanna Mool: I am not aware of any local limits in Illinois. I don’t think they would have statutory authority to do that.

John Tsarpalas: Okay, good. Alright, then let’s talk about in-kind contributions. People know when they get a check, they’ve got to report it. But people have to report if someone’s donating food, let’s say, to a party? How does that work? And again, are their minimum limits that you don’t have to report usually?

Deanna Mool: Okay, so anything than a hundred and fifty in Illinois, a hundred and fifty dollars worth of value doesn’t have to be itemized. If someone is giving you food, more than likely it’s going to end up being over a hundred and fifty dollars.

You know, when you get into the question, “What’s the value of the donation? If I give you my restaurant for the evening and I give you the food to go with the reception to support your candidacy, how much have I given you?” And I think that that’s probably fairly easy to entertain because at some point you may have rented the restaurant out to someone else and charged them something. And the food’s worth whatever it’s worth. So you can come up with values for those.

The questions get into like, “Are you a volunteer on the campaign or are you doing professional work for the campaign?” You know? How do you sort of treat those people that are giving time? You’re not required if somebody is going to go out and out yard signs, I don’t think they are required to give you an in-kind statement for my time is minimum wage per hour and this is what I did. That’s not what we are talking about.

But if you an accountant donating, you know, the time to fill out your campaign finance reports- I don’t know any accountants that do this- you need to look at those rules pretty carefully. I think that would be closer to something that you would really have to report.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. I tend to think that volunteer time is volunteer time.

Deanna Mool: Right.

John Tsarpalas: It’s not something necessarily you are reporting at all. But the more obvious is they donated the restaurant or they donated a bunch of pizzas or they printed something for free for you. Those kinds of things should be reported as in-kind.

Deanna Mool: Clearly. Clearly if somebody is printing something for you for free, they are giving you their restaurant, they are donating food, you are going to have to report that as an in-kind contribution.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. Are there certain breaks on- Well, you would be paying for it. I’m thinking about mailing and all that. There are not special postage rates. You’re just going to use regular mail services. Unless you are the state party or you are at that level. That’s a whole other thing.

Deanna Mool: Right.

John Tsarpalas: Yeah, so I’m getting confused here. And I’m going to…

Deanna Mool: Well, you might have, you could have a bulk mail rate.

John Tsarpalas: But you are still paying for it and that’s not…

Deanna Mool: You are paying the fair market value of it.

John Tsarpalas: Right.

Deanna Mool: You’re not a discount any different from anybody else.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. Alright. Are there any other big pitfalls people need to think about here?

Deanna Mool: During the campaign?

John Tsarpalas: Yeah.

Deanna Mool: You know, I- I’m sorry.

John Tsarpalas: You go ahead, go ahead and then I’ve got one I’ve thought of.

Deanna Mool: I get questions sometimes about “The other side stole our signs”, “They started moving stuff”, or “There is a municipal regulation that we can’t put out signs until this date. Is all that constitutional? Does it violate free speech?” And the problem with those is you usually just need to work them out. It becomes a conversation either between your lawyer and the local authorities or you and the local authorities trying to work out something. Because in all likelihood, the campaign doesn’t have enough money to go to court and sue for a first amendment right to get their signs out earlier. So I think those are things that you negotiate.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. I was one of the first things a lot of people do is put a little money in the campaign of their own. The candidate puts in a thousand dollars, let’s say, to get started. Do they have the limits usually on themselves? And is this a donation and/or should they be writing it up as a loan?

Deanna Mool: Well, it depends if they want to get paid back or not. If they want to get paid back out of those funds, they need to write it up as a loan. It needs to be documented in advance of giving the money to the campaign. And I don’t think there’s limits on what you personally can put in your campaign. If you put a lot in of your personal money, it may trigger higher limits on the other side.

Again, you’ll be reporting it as a contribution or a loan. You are going to report it as a contribution or a loan. If you report it as a contribution and then try to call it a loan, it’s not going to fly. If you report it as a loan, then you can pay yourself back eventually.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. So the campaign’s over. Win or lose or whatever, at some point you’re going to want to close up the campaign.

Deanna Mool: Correct.

John Tsarpalas: But there’s money still there. What do you do with that money? Can it be given back to the donors? Can it be given to another campaign?

Deanna Mool: When you set up a campaign in Illinois, you fill out a campaign organization form. And you designate on that form what you will do with any leftover funds at the end of the campaign. You basically have three choices, which is to give to another campaign, to return it to the donors, or to donate it to a charity. I think a lot of clients will actually pick donate it to a charity because they can’t always account for what donors should get what percent of what refund. You don’t want to be issuing twenty-five cent checks to three thousand people.

John Tsarpalas: Mhmm.

Deanna Mool: However you are going to account for that, if you are going to do it last in. I just don’t have clients do that. They usually just say they are going to give it to a charity or another campaign.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. Any special requirements for online donations? Or is it just treated like any other donation?

Deanna Mool: Again, if you are running for federal office, there certainly is different information that you have to collect versus if you are running for state office. But for contributions, you need to get name and address and occupation. So if you are going to use a pop-up type thing, make sure that your web programmer knows the information you are required to report to the state board of elections before you just launch off. Because otherwise you are going to be trying to contact all these donors and get the info you need when it’s time to report. Too time consuming. You can do it upfront by knowing what you need to report.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. And there are lots of different software programs out there set up to work some of these things. It’s going to be state specific, so we won’t get into that issue.

Deanna Mool: Correct.

John Tsarpalas: But there are programs that will help you with this, besides what is already there by the state board of elections or on their site.

Deanna Mool: Correct.

John Tsarpalas: So that’s all out there. Any other last thoughts? Encouragement?

Deanna Mool: No, I think you should go for it. We don’t have enough good people involved in politics. So I think the more we get, the better.

John Tsarpalas: I agree. That’s the whole idea behind this podcast is to give people an idea on how to run for office because there are so many elected offices, and people are just not stepping up. And we need good people to step up and we need to make it a little simpler.

Deanna Mool: Find people that can help you make it simple. I can talk about this and make it sound so complicated that nobody wants to do it, or I can just give you easy answers. Find people to help you that are going to say, “Look, these are the five things you need to do and we are going to get it done.” And get it done.

John Tsarpalas: Well, that’s one of the reason I’ve always liked working with you. You’ve always kept it simple. And I got to keep everything simple.

Deanna Mool: Yup.

John Tsarpalas: So how does someone find an election law attorney? And in conclusion, how do we find you? But let’s start with how would one go about… Say you are in Montana. Is there a listing to go to? Something?

Deanna Mool: The national parties both have lawyer organizations. But most of the time the attorneys involved in those have some interest in elections. So you could start there. You could start word of mouth. You know, if you know someone else who has run for office, who have they used? And did they like working with them?

It’s kind of funny because a lot of people say, “Oh, yeah, I do election law.”  I would ask them how many petition challenges they’ve done, what their success rate was, if you are getting them to draft your petitions. If you are going to do an election contest after the election, you’ve better make sure they’ve done one before. At that level, it’s not a game.

But if you have a really good friend that’s a lawyer and they are willing to put some time in it and they are going to volunteer to do it for free, just know that if it gets too intense, if you’ve got a problem- you’ve got a complaint filed against your financial statements with the state board of elections or something- it may be time to try and find somebody that really knows what they are doing.

John Tsarpalas: Right. Good. Good advice. So, how do people find you? What’s your contact info?

Deanna Mool: Well, I’m on the web, Or my phone is 217-496-3355.

John Tsarpalas: Okay, and we’ll have all that information on how to find you in the show notes on our website. Thanks. This has been I think a very good overview of where to start. I really appreciate it.

Deanna Mool: No problem. Thank you very much for having me on.

John Tsarpalas: Well, you are welcome.

Well, that’s campaign law basics. Thank you to Deanna Mool for being our guest this week. If you’d like to see Deanna’s bio or find contact information, that’s in our show notes. All that’s located at, along with a full transcript of the podcast. You can email me at

And feel free to leave comments on our website. We would love your feedback. How can we help you become a better activist, a better candidate, a more active political person? We want to change the world. We want it to be freer. We need your help. We are trying to grow that community. So spread the word to friends you might have. If you are in a group, perhaps someone there you know, you could pass on the thought of this podcast or our website and they could get a better idea of what’s going on. And we can help them and help you. Thanks for listening! I’m John Tsarpalas. Until next time.

Deanna Mool: Find people that can help you make it simple. I can talk about this and make it sound so complicated that nobody wants to do it, or I can just give you easy answers. Find people to help you that are going to say, “Look, these are the five things you need to do and we are going to get it done.” And get it done.



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