What is the $3 "Presidential Election Campaign Fund" box on my taxes?


You have very little control over where your taxes go. Maybe you'd like everything you owe to go toward keeping violence-against-women programs afloat or boost the National Park Service, or you want to throw it all at a wall. But without regard to your wishes, your money will go into one big pot. 

All except for $3 of it — if you so choose. On your tax return, there is a small box near your name and address that asks you if you or your spouse would like to contribute $3 to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. 

This is not the same kind of donation pitch you get at the grocery store or drug store: You know, when they ask if you'd like to round up your purchase, or donate a dollar to pediatric cancer research or another charity?

The $3 is not added to your bill, nor subtracted. It won't affect your refund. 

If you check the box, the IRS will merely direct $3 of your tax money to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. 

What is that? And why would you want to contribute? We're here with answers.

Why is there a "Presidential Election Campaign Fund" box on your tax return?

It was Teddy Roosevelt's idea to create a public fund to support elections — so that not all money needed to be raised by candidates. His notion was rolled out in his 1907 State of the Union address

"The need for collecting large campaign funds would vanish if Congress provided an appropriation for the proper and legitimate expenses of each of the great national parties, an appropriation ample enough to meet the necessity for thorough organization and machinery, which requires a large expenditure of money.

But the check box was not introduced until the early 1970s.

Candidates in primary and general presidential elections are able to spend the checkoff dollars on campaign advertising, staff, travel, fundraising and other campaign-related expenses. The funds are not allowed to be used for personal costs.

The Federal Election Commission describes many rules here for how the checkbox funds are used. But as campaign costs have ballooned, candidates in recent years have tended to rely much more on raising money on their own, making the fund more symbolic than anything else.

Who contributes?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of people giving the $3 has gone down. In 1977, nearly 29% of taxpayers contributed to the fund. That percentage had dropped to 19% by 1992, and by 2013, only 6% of taxpayers checked off the box, according to CNNMoney.

Generally over time, Republicans have not contributed but Democrats have, with some exceptions. Obama has ticked the box, except for in 2005 and 2006 when he didn't — and Hillary Clinton was a consistent box-ticker, according to a CNBC analysis of the available tax returns of recent presidential candidates.

Turns out President Donald Trump did — according to the 2005 tax return that was released, while first lady Melania Trump did not.

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