What does "safe harbor" really mean?

The electoral college procedure has a “safe harbor date” by which to send unquestionable slates of electors. My 401k has a “safe harbor match” plan that gets the company out of some compliance rules. Investor relations documents from publicly traded companies start with “safe harbor statements” that disclaim a lot of things.

I don’t really understand what the hell those have to do with each other. It feels like it means something like legally immune from something, but also like it means standardized and conforming to some universal specification. It seems like it also means a demarcation between things that are this and things that aren’t that thing.

What any of this has to do with boating is beyond me.

What does something have to do or be to be a “safe harbor”?

When you reach a safe harbor, you no longer have to worry about external forces. So it’s become a catchall legal phrase for when something is no longer in flux or threatened by new developments. That could be a wide variety of things, from exposure to security-fraud laws, or liability for copyright infringement, to competing or contradictory slates of electors.

I’m most familiar with the term “safe harbor” in the context of some Dodd-Frank regulations. In the particular case I’m familiar with, there’s a simplified exposure calculation a bank can do on its interest rate swap portfolio; if the simplified exposure is small enough (below a certain threshold), then the bank can skip a more detailed reporting requirement which is based on a more complicated calculation.

So in that case, it’s sort of like saying “if you are under this size, then it’s OK to apply more lax standards” (because a small amount is unlikely to be material in the grand scheme of things).

But why would saying “look, our financial statements could be wrong, but we tried our best” mean one is no longer threatened by new developments? Why would matching my 401k contribution at a specific amount mean my company is no longer in flux?

American securities law requires companies to warn investors about “forward-looking statements”. So the SEC has provided a boiler-plate disclaimer and says “if your company uses this boiler-plate disclaimer, we consider that a good enough warning to investors”.

I presume you already read the Wikipedia article, but I’ll link it here anyways.

In a traditional 401(k) there can be complicated rules on how much money certain people can defer and how much the company can match and how the money vests (becomes the employee’s). If the owners or highly-compensated employees are socking all of their money into the 401(k) and also getting a huge match, while the rank-and-file are not, then the 401(k) plan is considered discriminatory and must be fixed.

In a safe-harbor plan, everyone is entitled to a certain match with immediate vesting, and in return the company is safe from worrying if their plan is discriminatory and having to do regular audits and tests for that.