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501c3 Nonprofits Can GOTV

by Jennifer Gray

Tomorrow is Primary Day and we’re kicking off a blog series focused on the theme How 501c3 Nonprofits Can Engage in Elections. Today we’re highlighting the role of nonprofits in getting out the vote (GOTV), part 2 will cover Voter and Candidate Education, part 3 will dig into Issue Advocacy, and part 4 will focus on social media.

Why Should Nonprofits GOTV?

Nonprofits play an important role in elections as trusted civically minded community voice. Not only does encouraging voting benefit the community but it also reinforces nonprofits’ credibility, standing in the community, and deepens their connections with decision makers.

Compliance with the rules isn’t only about keeping out of legal trouble. Nonprofit supporters have varied perspectives and political philosophies. Keep in mind that appearances matter and election season creates a charged atmosphere in which people have a heightened sense of awareness and sensitivity. Conducting such activities according to the rules helps to maintain the integrity of individual organizations as well as the broader sector.

Fundamentals

  • 501c3 Nonprofits are prohibited by federal law from endorsing candidates for electoral office, aligning with candidates or parties, and from making campaign contributions. This guides which activities are and are not permissible.
  • Nonprofits can help people vote as long as it’s done in a nonpartisan way and in no way guides voters towards a particular candidate or party.

Allowed Activities

  • Voter Registration
    • Voter registration efforts, including drives, are permissible. Information about how to register to vote (including a helpful video!) can be found here. When registering people to vote, a nonprofit may explain the benefits or registering with a party (you can vote in the party’s primary), but cannot sway registrants towards a particular party.
  • Voting Encouragement
    • Information may be provided about how to register to vote, how to vote absentee, where to vote, when the vote is taking place, voting deadlines, etc.
    • [Note: As you encourage staff, volunteers and clients to vote in tomorrow’s primary, you may want to point to this helpful video about how the ranked choice voting ballot works!]

Target audience

  • Nonprofits can encourage their staff, board, volunteers, clients, members and community to register to vote and to vote.
  • 501c3 organizations may also target a specific community or group of people to register to vote such as students and first-time voters. However, the organization may not target a group of voters who it thinks is more likely to vote for a specific candidate or party.

Avoid at All Costs

  • Do not suggest what candidate or party to support. If asked, explain that the effort is a nonpartisan effort and that you, as a nonprofit representative, may not advise them.

Volunteers

  • Remember that these rules apply to staff, board members and volunteers helping in the GOTV effort. Participants should be reminded of the rules and make sure they aren’t wearing any candidate buttons or anything promoting a particular candidate or party.

Federal Fund Limitations

  • Some federal funds have rules prohibiting voter registration and others specifically require voter registration. If your organization receives federal funds, you should double check what is and isn’t allowed.

Additional Resources

There are a lot of excellent resources available that help 501c3 nonprofits learn how to legally engage in Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts. Particular thanks to Nonprofit VOTE, whose materials we’ve referenced in developing this content.

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