How to educate voters and preserve your 501(c)(3) exemption.

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501(c)(3) entities are prohibited from showing support or opposition for any political candidate. However, as mentioned in a July 2020 post, found here, some entities do engage in voter outreach and education. For these organizations, it is important to conduct voter outreach and education in a non-partisan and unbiased manner. If your organization provides any indication that one or more candidates is preferred over others, the organization has crossed the line into prohibited political activity.

Candidate Speeches

Here are some dos and do nots to remember if candidates are invited to speak to your members at your events.

DO: Invite ALL candidates competing for the same office. If any candidate declines to speak, make sure your members or attendees know the reason for their absence.

DO NOT: Invite one or a selection of candidates. Doing this communicates that your organization supports the candidate or candidates invited and opposes the candidate or candidates uninvited.

DO: Have all the political candidates speak at the same or similar events. For example, you can invite candidates to different member meetings if they are successive and the attendance numbers are comparable.

DO NOT: Vary your introductions of the candidates in tone or content. Doing so will indicate if there is a candidate preferred by the organization, or a candidate the organization believes is more qualified for the political office.

DO: Prohibit the candidates from fundraising at the meeting or event. Even if all political candidates have equal opportunity to fundraise, allowing it is prohibited political activity because it benefits the political candidate. The purpose of candidates speaking at meetings or events is only for voter education.

DO NOT: Ask political candidates questions on a small set of issues. Differentiating the candidates on particular issues is prohibited political activity. The broader the range of topics and issues that are discussed, the better.

DO: Give each political candidate equal speaking time. This applies if the political candidates are giving a speech and answering audience questions, as well as if the event is a moderated debate. A moderator must not consistently allow one or more candidates to speak over time limits while strictly adhering to the time limits for other candidates.

Publications (including social media)

Here are some dos and do nots if you wish to publish information about candidates’ voting records or policy proposals.

DO NOT: Rate the candidates in ANY WAY. Any kind of score or grade indicates that the organization supports the candidate(s) with good scores and opposes the candidate(s) with bad scores.

DO: Provide the voting records of ALL candidates for an office. Highlighting the voting record of only one or a selection of candidates indicates that the organization supports or opposes the highlighted candidate.

DO NOT: Publish policy proposals for candidates on a small set of issues. Differentiating the candidates on particular issues is prohibited political activity. The broader the range of topics and issues that are discussed, the better.

DO: Provide the policy proposals and stances of ALL candidates for an office. Highlighting the policies and stances of only one or a selection of candidates indicates that the organization supports or opposes the highlighted candidate.

DO NOT: Provide links directly to a site with clear opinions on candidates, like a newspaper opinion article. You may offer links to candidate websites as long as you offer links for every candidate and in the same manner.

Voter Registration and GOTV

Registering and reminding people to vote is a good practice for nonprofits, especially if there is an important ballot initiative the organization is campaigning for or against. Here are some helpful dos and do nots for voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives.

DO: Provide the same information to every voter regardless of political affiliation or preferred candidate. Helping certain voters more if they indicate one preference and other voters less if they express a different preference is prohibited political activity.

DO NOT: Proffer candidate or party information or paraphernalia at a voter registration booth.

DO: Provide accurate voting deadlines and guidance.

Pending Legislation

As long as a 501(c)(3) does not spend a substantial part of its efforts or spends too much of its resources on lobbying, it may engage with legislators on specific legislation efforts. Issues can arise if the legislator voting on important legislation is also a candidate for political office. Here are some helpful dos and do nots if you find yourself in this situation.

DO NOT: Ask your members or supporters to call an elected official who is also a political candidate about an issue if there is no pending legislation for the elected official to vote on. This is especially true if the official’s political rival has differentiated themselves on that issue.

DO: Make sure calls to action for your members or supporters only refers to the pending legislation and makes no reference to the race in which the official is a candidate.  

By Julia K. Morrison

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