Elections and Nonprofits

Recently I was working on a series of public events to be sponsored by a 501©3 wannabe organization that intends to apply for tax exempt status in the near future. My thought was that these summer events pose a great opportunity to invite candidates and to share heaps of information about early primaries, voter registration. absentee voting and logistics. I was appalled, disappointed, but totally sympathetic when the chair of the project rejected out of hand any involvement in the political arena. Her fear was that the organization would jeopardize that essential tax exemption. It’s not the first time I’ve met such resistance.

It is totally understandable that nonprofits are skittish. The threat is not so much losing tax exempt status but lack of valid information and an abundance of misinformation widely disseminated by those who may not welcome nonprofits or their open communication with those they serve.

When I got honest with myself, I realized that I have lingering questions myself and that it is not so easy to find the answers. What I found was a richness of information geared to voters, but not enough information for the intermediaries – e.g. my colleague planning these Summer events – who are the most effective link to the voter the non-voter.

I turned to a long-time colleague, Jeff Narabrook. the well-informed and generous point person for the Minnesota Participation Project, a project of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. Building on my own ignorance, I posed a series of questions to Jeff.
By turnaround email I received a response who quickly acknowledged that, though nonprofit managers are understandably skittish about “nonpartisan voter engagement.” Then Jeff quells program planners’ angst with precise and comprehensible affirmation of nonprofits’ appropriate role.

Jeff’s answer to my first question promptly set me back on the proselytizing path with renewed passion for the cause.

Q (MT): Can a nonprofit offer voter registration information?
A (Jeff) Absolutely! Not only is it legal, but nonprofits that receive state funding are required to conduct voter registration activities. Voter registration must be conducted in a nonpartisan manner. The MN Participation Projects offers a great toolbox for those who may be considering or planning a voter education, participation or registration project.

And so the Q & A continued:

Q (M) : Can a nonprofit offer absentee voter info?
A: (J) Yes, nonprofits can provide information on any aspect of how voters can participate, from absentee voting to Election Day registration, to vouching, to special programs for victims of violence to remain anonymous on the voter rolls.

Q (M): Can a nonprofit provide information about the early primaries?
A (J) : Yes, as with the general election, nonprofits can help individuals become aware of the primary, how to register for it, and other logistics items involved in with primary.  Again, this just must be done in a nonpartisan fashion and the organization cannot try to influence how the person will vote.

Q (M) : Can a nonprofit invite candidates (challengers and incumbents) to visit their event or program?
A (J): Yes.  The golden rule:is that all candidates are treated equally.  If one is invited, all must be invited.  If not all candidates invited can attend, you may or may not choose to cancel.  Generally, if two are invited and only one can attend, it’s best to cancel.  If more than two are invited and at least two can attend, you may decide to go forward. Candidates may not be given preferential treatment and the organization may not attempt to make one candidate look better or worse, explicitly or implicitly, for example by asking leading questions.

Q (M): Can a nonprofit invite incumbents only to visit an event?
A: (J)   If they are invited as candidates, they may not only invite incumbents. If they are invited to speak in their capacity as a legislator, that is fine. It should be made perfectly clear, in writing or email, that the individual is being invited as a legislator, NOT as a candidate, and ask that the legislator not use the visit as an opportunity to campaign (please, no campaign literature, buttons, etc. during the visit).

It’s common to remind the legislator politely that the organization is forbidden from explicitly or implicitly endorsing a candidate, and that a violation of this could harm the organization and that’s why it’s important they only wear their hat as a legislator.  But if your intent is really candidate education, you should invite all candidates, not just the incumbent.    I’m less clear on what to do if the candidate has no challengers.  Can you still invite that person as a candidate to educate them?  I will look into this.

Sometimes people ask a question as to whether you need to invite ALL candidates who have filed, which sometimes can be quite numerous.  It is acceptable to limit invitations to candidates of major parties as long as the organization documents why that decision was made. At a minimum all major party candidate – in Minnesota these are the Democratic Farmer Labor Party, the Republican Party and the Independence Party – need to be included if there is someone from that party running for the seat in question.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie is the elected official responsible for implementation of this and a zillion other election rules and procedures. The Secretary of State’s website provides more than you ever wanted to know about the process – polling places, rules, dates, forms and my personal favorite, the list of all candidates who have filed.

Primary election – August 10, 2010 – absentee ballots due August 9
General election – November 2, 2010 – absentee ballots due November 1

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