What is Political Campaign Intervention?
Participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, a candidate for elective public office is called “political campaign intervention.” 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations are strictly prohibited from engaging in any political campaign intervention, direct or indirect, including supporting or endorsing a candidate for public office.
If a 501(c)(3) organization engages in political campaign intervention, the IRS may impose excise taxes and, in egregious cases, revoke the organization’s tax-exempt status.
Officers and directors of an organization may personally endorse a candidate for public office without jeopardizing the organization’s tax-exempt status. However, individuals should take caution in doing so to ensure that they are not perceived as acting on behalf of, or in their capacity with, the organization when personally endorsing a candidate for public office. They also may not use any of the organization’s resources in connection with their personal endorsement.
Examples of Political Campaign Intervention
Examples of political campaign intervention include, but are not limited to:
- Monetary contributions to political campaigns
- Public statements of position (verbal or written) that support or oppose any candidate for public office
- Handing out literature that is either supportive or critical of a candidate for public office
Issue advocacy during an election campaign is not in itself prohibited campaign intervention. However, an organization’s open support of issues that are similar to the positions of a candidate for public office may constitute “political campaign intervention” if the organization’s support of the issues includes any message favoring or opposing a candidate. Whether or not issue advocacy constitutes political campaign intervention will depend on all of the facts and circumstance surrounding the communication, including, but not limited to:
- Whether the statement identifies a candidate;
- Whether the statement is delivered close in time to the election;
- Whether the statement refers to voting or the election itself; and
- Whether the issue is one that distinguishes the candidates for a given office.
If your organization intends to engage in any of these activities, it should first consult with an attorney to ensure the activity does not constitute political campaign intervention.
Permissible Political Activities
Within certain parameters, 501(c)(3) organizations may engage in:
- Nonpartisan voter registration. Activities intended to encourage the public to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, do not constitute political campaign intervention if they are conducted in a nonpartisan manner. Organizations must be careful to ensure that such activities do not favor or oppose any candidate or group of candidates.
- Candidate forums. Whether a candidate forum results in political campaign intervention depends on several factors, including whether the forum is nonpartisan and allows all candidates to equally present their views. Organizations hosting a candidate forum must take steps to ensure that (a) it provides an equal opportunity to participate to all political candidates seeking the same office, (b) it does not indicate any support for or opposition to any candidate (including during candidate introductions and in communications concerning any candidate’s attendance), and (c) no political fundraising occurs.
- Speaking engagements. If an organization invites an elected official to speak at an event because of the office they currently hold or because of their celebrity, not because they are running for re-election, their presence may be permissible. Still, the organization must inform the candidate that they may not mention the election or ask for votes. If the candidate does, the event may be deemed political campaign intervention. The organization hosting the event must also ensure that (a) no campaign activity occurs in connection with the candidate’s attendance and (b) it maintains a nonpartisan atmosphere on the premises or at the event where the candidate is present. Moreover, in the communications announcing the candidate’s attendance at the event, the organization must clearly indicate the capacity in which the candidate is appearing and not mention the individual’s political candidacy or the upcoming election.
What Should an Organization Do If It Supported a Political Candidate or Campaign?
If your organization inadvertently engaged in political campaign intervention, it should consult with an attorney to determine the best way to correct and report improper expenditures and minimize the likelihood that the IRS will revoke its tax-exempt status.
NOTE: The information contained herein is not intended to be legal advice and the reader should know that no Attorney-Client relationship or privilege is formed by the posting or reading of this article which is also not intended to solicit business.