On Tuesday, November 7, millions of voters across multiple states decided the fate of several ballot measures, including a number of vital constitutional amendments. Though 501(c)(3) public charities are prohibited from supporting or opposing candidates for public office, they can engage in ballot measure advocacy. November’s elections serve as a reminder of how 501(c)(3) organizations can become involved in the electoral process by supporting or opposing ballot measures and how they can advance public policy by securing ballot measure wins. As the 2024 general election looms, the resounding support for progressive ballot measures in key battleground states underscores the electorate’s commitment to democratic values.
Here is a quick recap of key results across the nation:
- Preschool funding—Voters in Colorado passed Proposition II, which allows the state to use excess tax revenue from tobacco products to fund preschool programs. Meanwhile, voters in Denver voted to extend the use of a 0.15% sales and use tax to fund the Denver Preschool Program.
- Foreign spending in elections—Maine voters approved a ballot measure that makes it illegal for entities owned or controlled by foreign governments to spend money in attempts to influence candidate elections or ballot measures.
- Right to abortion—Voters in Ohio overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure that would establish the right to abortion in the Ohio state constitution. Issue 1 won by a double-digit margin, strengthening the idea that Americans are eager to protect the rights of those in need of abortion care.
- Marijuana legalization—A measure that sought to legalize recreational marijuana also won by an overwhelming majority in Ohio. The state of Ohio now becomes the 24th state to legalize marijuana, allowing residents to use, grow, and sell the medicinal plant. Issue 2 was seen as a litmus test for other states, such as Florida, South Dakota, and Nebraska, that will vote on similar ballot measures in the 2024 general election.
- Broadband internet—Voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 8, a statewide ballot measure that will allocate $1.5 billion to expand internet availability in Texas. The “Yes” vote was supported by several local nonprofit organizations looking to increase internet access to the more than 7 million Texas residents who currently do not have broadband access.
- COLA raises to retired teachers—Texas voters supported Proposition 9, a constitutional amendment that would provide cost-of-living adjustments (“COLA”) to retired teachers. The amendment will not only impact teachers but will also reach retired school bus drivers, custodians, and other staff.
What can your 501(c)(3) do next time?
501(c)(3) organizations must remain nonpartisan before, during, and after election season. Essentially, the tax code prohibits 501(c)(3)s from attempting to influence the outcome of candidate elections. Thus, 501(c)(3) organizations cannot support or oppose candidates running for public office. However, 501(c)(3)s may legally express an opinion on ballot initiatives, constitutional amendments, city charter amendments, bond measures, and other initiatives that require a direct vote from the public to be approved.
Work on ballot initiatives is treated as direct lobbying under federal tax law, instead of being classified as partisan political activity. This means that while 501(c)(3)s may form a campaign in support or opposition of specific ballot measures, they need to track these activities towards their lobbying limits.
Provided they follow state campaign finance and disclosure laws and remain within their lobbying limits, public charities can also engage in the following activities:
- Propose and even participate in the drafting of these ballot measures;
- Use volunteers or staff members to gather signatures;
- Contribute money to ballot measure campaigns; and
- Register people to vote and urge them to vote in favor or against specific ballot measures.
For more information on how 501(c)(3) public charities can actively support or oppose ballot initiatives, visit our Ballot Measure Toolkit and our state-specific Nonprofit Voter Assistance Practical Guidance series. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to our free technical assistance hotline for additional information.