Q – Why Nonprofits?
A – Nonprofit VOTE
, a national organization that partners with nonprofits to help the people they serve participate in electoral activities and vote, outlines several great reasons why nonprofits should engage in nonpartisan, election-related activities. Here are just a few:
- The size of our sector – The National Center on Charitable Statistics reports that there are 1 million registered 501(c)(3)s across the country. Here in CT, there are 14,000 estimated nonprofits that employ 11% of the state’s workforce. Between staff, volunteers, clients and donors, nonprofits have a far reach into Connecticut and possess the ability to demonstrate to thousands the importance of participating in elections.
- Who we represent – It is no secret that many nonprofits serve underrepresented populations with a history of lower voter participation. These are individuals who often don’t have their voice heard and nonprofits have a great opportunity to help them have it heard.
- Our credibility – In surveys nonprofits rank high among institutions people trust. A recent Harris Poll gives us a window as to whom the public wishes had more influence in political affairs. Respondents ranked nonprofits and small businesses as people they wished had more say in politics – second only to themselves! While nonprofits can’t influence who gets elected, we can influence who votes. We can ensure that those we serve are registered to vote, know where, when and how to vote, and get out to vote on the day of the election. Who they vote for is up to them!
- Our social missions – Many nonprofits have missions that focus on improving the greater social good. Be it developing housing, serving domestic violence victims, preserving open space, or providing animal welfare, the goal is to improve the society around us. Encouraging voting and other forms of participation is a national part of improving the world around us.
- Our committed staff and volunteers – Nonprofit employees are some of the most dedicated members of the workforce. They are committed to strengthening their communities and improving the lives of others. This commitment to a greater community benefit is a powerful reason to be involved in election-related activities and encourage wide participation.
- Our tax status – It is not only legal, but well within our missions to encourage voter and civic participation. As 501(c)(3)s, nonprofits and charities can do a wide variety of activities to support voting, so long as they are nonpartisan.
Q – Why should we encourage voting?
Nonprofits certainly have a lot on their plate, but it is well worth their while to make nonpartisan, election-related activities a part of their organization’s work. Here are some reasons why nonprofits should encourage voter participation:
- Wide gaps in who votes undermine democracy and our nonprofit missions and goals - If nonprofit clients, employees, board members, volunteers and donors don’t vote, how will our priorities become the priorities of candidates and elected officials? When candidates and elected officials hear from constituents, especially through the ballot box, they can get a better grasp of their community’s needs.
- Our communities are not being reached about elections – If someone is not registered to vote, there is very little chance that they will ever be contacted about an election. It is important for nonprofits to serve as that connection, letting citizens know that it’s important to be a registered voter and have your voice heard.
- The people we serve are least likely to understand the process – Voter participation is a learned activity. Because our clients and consumers trust us, they are more likely to listen when we inform them about voting. This may include how to register, when and where to vote, and what the ballot looks like. Once they feel more confident about how they process works, they are more likely to participate.
- Who votes matters – The people who vote decide who gets elected and the people who get elected know who put them in office. It is critical to the sustainability of the nonprofit community that we elect people in office who understand our clients and consumers and will make decisions based upon their best interests. But if we (nonprofit clients, staff, board members, volunteers and donors) don’t vote, then our concerns will not be heard.
Q – What are some nonpartisan activities that we can do as an organization?
There are plenty of nonpartisan, election-related activities that nonprofits can do while on the clock, including:
- Invite candidates to visit your organization to meet with your staff, Board, clients/consumers and families. Also schedule a post-election meeting with your newly elected official.
- Nonpartisan voter registration – include a voter registration card as part of your intake process or make them available in your front office.
- Hold a candidate forum.
- Invite candidates to your annual meeting, fundraisers and Board meetings and ask them to speak about their view on the importance of the nonprofit sector and the services you provide.
- Create issue briefs for candidates, as well as candidate questionnaires and voter guides.
- Include all candidates on your mailing list.
- Give individuals who have difficulty getting to the polls a ride.
When doing any of the above activities as an “on the clock” nonprofit employee, you must be nonpartisan. This means that when you extend an invitation to meet to one candidate, you must extend that invitation to all candidates. If you are going to send an issue brief, you must send it to all candidates, not one preferred candidate. And if you are going to create a voter guide, you must be very careful to keep your issues broad and not appear bias for a particular candidate or party. Finally, if you’re giving your clients and consumers rides to the polls on Election Day and they ask you who to vote for, just politely say that you can’t tell them who to vote for.
Nonpartisan activities are very important to the overall outcome of the election. Ensuring that nonprofit clients and consumers have the tools, knowledge and power to vote without ever having to cross a partisan line will certainly impact the election. Nonprofits should not be scared that they can’t do any election-related activities for fear of losing their tax-exempt status. There’s simply too much at stake to not be involved.
Q – Are nonprofit employees prohibited from participating in partisan activities off the clock?
A – Absolutely not! Working for a nonprofit does not limit your freedom of speech as an individual. When you’re not on the clock, you are free to engage in partisan election-related activities. This includes actively supporting one candidate and/or party over another. If you are well-known as working for a nonprofit, you should be certain to make it clear to people at partisan events that you are there as an individual and in no way representing the nonprofit which you work for. It is up to you to be careful and ensure that you are not doing any partisan activities while on company time, because doing so could risk your nonprofit’s tax-exempt status.
Q – How does CT’s Campaign Finance Laws impact election-related activities?
Lobbyists can now donate a maximum of $100 in qualifying contributions to candidates participating in CT’s Citizens’ Election Program
(CEP). However, candidates participating in the CEP are still prohibited from receiving contributions for principals of state contracts.
In August 2010, the House was able to override the Governor's veto of a bill passed during special session that addressed necessary changes to the state's campaign finance law. The bill passed in July was in response to the a Federal Appeals Court ruling that struck down both the outright ban on lobbyist contributions and the "triggers" that gave additional money to candidates participating in the public financing program who were being outspent by non-participating candidates. The bill removes the "triggers," but doubles the grant amount for a gubernatorial candidate from $3 million to $6 million in an effort to allow participating candidates to stay competitive with non-participating candidates. Changes were also made to allow lobbyists to give up to $100 in qualifying contributions to candidates participating in the campaign finance program.
Principals of state contracts are still prohibited from contributing money to those candidates running for office in the branch with which the contractor has or is seeking a contract, political committees authorized to give to such candidates, or party committees. Further
, candidates participating in the CEP are still prohibited from receiving contributions from principals of state contracts regardless of the branch with which the contractor has or is seeking a contract - e.g.: if you hold a contract with DSS, DCF, DDS, DMHAS, DOC, etc, which are Executive Branch agencies, CEP candidates for State Senate and State Representative (Legislative Branch) are still prohibited from receiving a contribution from you. State contracts that are subject to this provision are valued at $50,000 (one contract) or $100,000 (multiple contracts) per calendar year. Principals of state contracts are defined HERE
, under "b" for nonprofit organizations.
The State Elections Enforcement Commission expects to issue several declaratory rulings in response to the changes made by the Legislature. Please check the SEEC's website for additional information the lobbyist and state contractor provisions