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Voter and Candidate Education

by Jennifer Gray

As part of our blog series focused on the theme How 501c3 Nonprofits Can Engage in Elections, today we’re highlighting Voter and Candidate Education.

501(c)3 Nonprofits may legally engage in voter and candidate education, such as through candidate forums and candidate questionnaires. While these are permissible to use, they need to be done carefully to avoid pitfalls. The key is to treat all candidates neutrally and equally.

Candidate Questionnaires

Nonprofits can ask candidates questions and share the answers with their community. This approach has the advantage of both educating candidates about issues important to the organization and educating voters about where candidates stand on key issues.

Guidelines

  • The questions should cover a broad range of issues, not just one specific issue.
  • The questions and descriptions of issues must be clear and unbiased in both structure and content.
  • The questions and answers need to be identical to what you publicize.
  • Let candidates know you intend to publicize their responses.
  • All candidates need to be given a reasonable amount of time to respond. As the deadline nears, let them know that if they don’t respond, you’ll indicate “Did Not Respond.”
  • “Yes” or “No” questions should also provide candidates with the opportunity to give short one or two answer sentence explanations.
  • If a candidate fails to respond, you may:
    • Indicate “Did Not Respond”
    • Choose to provide information about the candidate that is a matter of public record or on their website. If you do, refrain from summarizing the candidate’s position.

Voter Guide

Voter guides can include factual and informative information about upcoming elections including where to vote and the candidates who are running. Often, they include a sample ballot. Here’s an example of the Maine League of Women Voter’s June Primary Voter Guide.

Guidelines

  • Guidelines include those for Candidate Questionnaires above.
  • Must include all viable candidates running for a particular office.
  • May include:
    • Name and photo of candidates
    • Current occupation, party affiliation
    • List of major endorsements provided by the candidate
    • Campaign contact information
    • Sample ballots

Educating Candidates About Your Organization and Issues

Candidates can benefit from your organization’s expertise. Your organization may provide information to educate the candidates on your issues, as long as you make these resources available to all of the candidates in the particular race and all candidates receive the same level of support and information.

Candidate visits are a great way to develop a relationship with the candidates and to help them learn about your organization’s work. Candidates may be invited to a nonprofit function on a nonpartisan basis. The official trigger for when someone is considered a candidate is when they announce they are running for the office.

Guidelines

  • When Candidates Visit as a Candidate:
    • An equal opportunity must be provided to all candidates for the particular office including similar time, venue, and presentation format.
    • Support for or opposition to a candidate is not indicated in any way. Be clear about this when introducing the candidate and in communications materials about the event.
    • No political fundraising may occur.
  • When Candidates Visit as a Public Figure:
    • If the candidate is chosen to speak solely for reasons other than their candidacy and only in a non-candidate capacity.
    • No mention is made of their candidacy during the presentation.
    • The atmosphere must be nonpartisan and free of campaign activity.
    • Even if all of the above are true, you should refrain from this activity close to an election.
  • When Candidates Just Show Up Unexpectedly
    • Candidates are free to attend public events sponsored by a nonprofit.
    • Take care that there is no actual or implied endorsement.
    • Do not give the candidate a chance to address the gathering.

Additional Permissible Candidate Education Activities

  • Sending the candidates a policy paper or research findings.
  • Letting the candidates know about your programs and value to the community.
  • Responding to requests for information from candidates on a nonpartisan basis.
  • Special research – your organization may be asked to conduct special research for a candidate.
    • If your staff does any significant special or new research then it would be considered an in-kind contribution and it is not permissible to share unless you notify and share it with all candidates.
    • If the information exists and is simply reformatted or re-purposed, then it can be shared.

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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