Before launching the Vote with Your Mission campaign, we consulted attorneys expert in nonprofit law to be sure we've got all the bases covered. These FAQs, which were prepared by David Levitt and Nancy McGlamery of the California law firm Adler & Colvin, provide a general explanation of the law. They are not offered or intended as legal advice and should not be relied upon as such.
Can my charitable nonprofit organization participate in this initiative?
Yes. Nonprofit organizations classified as 501(c)(3) public charities may conduct nonpartisan "get-out-the-vote" activities and voter registration without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status. It is a legitimate charitable activity to support voter engagement and educate the public about the importance of voting.
If you are a private foundation: Charities that are classified as private foundations are subject to certain limitations on voter registration; if your organization is a private foundation, you first should review these rules or discuss with legal counsel before conducting any voter registration activities. A private foundation should not be restricted from participating in other aspects of the "Vote with Your Mission" initiative that do not involve voter registration.
What does it mean for an activity to be nonpartisan?
An activity is nonpartisan if no preference is shown for or against any candidate or political party, and the activity is not designed to help or hurt the chances for election of any candidate or group of candidates.
A charitable nonprofit organization cannot tell people – directly or indirectly – for whom they should vote. The purpose of "Vote with Your Mission" is to encourage nonprofit staff, board members, and volunteers to vote with the same ideals and values they bring to the nonprofit sector, regardless of which candidate they choose to support.
What should we do to ensure that our activities remain nonpartisan?
When explaining the "Vote with Your Mission" initiative to its directors, officers, staff, and volunteers (and, if applicable, members of the broader public), the organization should explicitly state that:
Can we mention issues that our organization considers important as part of this nonpartisan effort?
A charitable nonprofit organization may address a specific issue as a reason to vote, so long as the nonprofit is not, directly or indirectly, telling voters which way to vote based on candidates' positions on that issue. The organization should avoid referencing polarizing "wedge" issues (issues that clearly separate the candidates in an upcoming election) in connection with encouraging voting, because this could be construed as indirectly telling people how to vote. If you will mention any issues in connection with encouraging constituents to "Vote with Your Mission," it is better to refer to at least three unrelated issues that are not wedge issues as reasons to vote.
What about ballot measures?
Elections in California typically also include ballot measures. Encouraging voters to support or oppose ballot measures is considered a form of legislative lobbying for a charity, because the effort is directed at the voters as if they were legislators adopting a new law.
Therefore, unlike with candidates, a public charity may support or oppose a ballot measure, subject to applicable rules regarding legislative lobbying. In contrast, private foundations are not permitted to engage in legislative lobbying, including with respect to ballot measures. For more information on the legal limitations applicable to the lobbying activities of charitable organizations, you can refer to advocacy resources provided on the websites of the following organizations:
Are there circumstances where a nonprofit should use extra caution or even refrain from participating in "Vote with Your Mission"?
In a few instances, organizations may be closely identified with a specific "wedge" issue (see above), or a position on a specific issue that is closely aligned with a candidate's position in an upcoming election (e.g., a gun control advocacy organization where gun control is a polarizing issue in the campaign or where a candidate has clearly aligned herself with the organization's gun control position). In these cases, you should consider whether urging constituents to "Vote with Your Mission" in an election might create too much of an inference that the organization is actually urging people to vote for or against a particular candidate. Most nonprofit organizations likely will not fall into this category. If you are uncertain, however, we suggest consulting with legal counsel.
One of the activities you recommend is providing up to two hours of paid staff time to vote on Election Day. What should my organization know about this?
California law requires employers to provide up to two hours of paid staff time to employees to enable them to vote. (See California Elections Code Section 14000. At minimum, this time should be provided at the beginning or end of the work day.
The law also requires you to post a notice regarding employees' rights with respect to paid time to vote, a sample of which is provided here. These rights are available to all staff, regardless of the employee's intentions regarding the persons for whom he or she will vote.
I have questions about legal issues that are not covered by this FAQ. What should I do?
Once an organization signs on to the initiative, the California Association of Nonprofits will provide a set of instructions for getting started. You can find additional legal resources that may be helpful on the websites of the following organizations:
Further resources can be found on Adler & Colvin's website. If you still have questions, we encourage you to speak with legal counsel.