Nonpartisan GOTV Efforts – Can We Say That?


Susan Finkle-Sourlis


Ballot Measures, Election Related Activities, Influencing Legislation, Public Charity Advocacy

Students and Austinites register to vote at a get-out-the-vote event in Austin, Texas.

501(c)(3) public charities play a vital role in elections. Voter registration drives, voter education, get out the vote (GOTV) efforts, and voter protection activities are essential tools to encourage civic participation. But what can public charities say when encouraging people to vote or educating the public on the importance of voting? Can 501(c)(3)s support or oppose nonpartisan candidates? What about encouraging voters to vote down-ballot? Can they discourage voting or encourage eligible voters to vote uncommitted?

Over the past few months, we’ve been asked several of these types of questions, so we wanted to take the time to address them. As a reminder, 501(c)(3) public charities cannot express support or opposition towards any candidate, which includes candidates running for nonpartisan offices. Below is an exploration of the different types of messages that 501(c)(3)s can promote when engaging in nonpartisan voter outreach.

Can we inform and encourage voters to vote the entire ballot?  

Undervoting is a phenomenon that occurs when a voter does not record a vote in every office or question on a ballot. Experts believe that this can happen due to ballot fatigue, apathy, or even the ballot’s design. For example, a voter may select their choice for President, member of Congress, and/or governor, but then stop and leave the booth without voting in any other race. The further a race is located down the ballot, the more likely a voter will stop short of selecting a candidate.

To combat this, an organization may educate voters on the process of voting and include information about ballot design. Encouraging the public to stay in the booth and vote the entire ballot, and educating voters on the importance of down-ballot races and ballot measures, is vital. For example, a nonprofit could say “Don’t forget to vote your entire ballot – state and local officials have a big impact on your life!” So long as this type of messaging and communication is nonpartisan (without suggesting who people should vote for), encouraging voters to make their voices heard all the way down the ballot should be a low-risk activity for a 501(c)(3).

Can we educate voters on the importance of certain levels of the ballot? 

Organizations can indeed discuss the importance of voting in elections for certain offices.  Explaining the role and impact of elected positions on communities is crucial for advocacy efforts. For example, educating the public on the importance of state supreme courts, which hear over 100 million cases annually, could motivate voters to research candidates and make informed decisions about who aligns with their interests. This educational approach is generally low-risk for a 501(c)(3), as long as it remains nonpartisan and refrains from endorsing specific candidates.

What about candidates running in nonpartisan offices? Can we voice our support or opposition to them?  

In a nonpartisan election for offices like state court judgeships, city council positions, or school board memberships, the candidate’s party affiliation is not listed on the ballot. However, these individuals are still considered candidates under the law. According to the IRS, a candidate is anyone running for public office, whether at the national, state, or local level. 501(c)(3) organizations are not allowed to support or oppose candidates. Therefore, expressing support or opposition for a candidate in a nonpartisan office is a high-risk, prohibited activity for a public charity.

What if we want to send a message of protest against the system? Can our public charity encourage voters to skip or not vote for a certain race on the ballot?  

In at least 24 states, voters have the option to indicate no commitment or preference on the ballot. This might occur in a primary or an election where only one candidate is running unopposed. Despite the frustration this may cause civic-minded individuals, voters do have the right to abstain from marking their ballot for a listed candidate. As one political pundit once wrote, “Don’t Vote, it Just Encourages the Bastards.” (P.J. O’Rourke, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010-09-21). Could a 501(c)(3) engage that type of rhetoric?

Encouraging voters to vote uncommitted or express no preference is considered partisan activity for a nonprofit organization. Why? Suggesting not to vote for certain candidates on the ballot implies opposition to them. Furthermore, if the goal is to send a message or show lack of support for candidates on the ballot or their political parties, this is considered to be high-risk activity for a 501(c)(3).

There are several avenues for organizations to participate in nonpartisan electoral activities, and it’s crucial to contribute to encouraging civic engagement. Remember, every effort counts towards building a more robust democracy. If you have any questions or need guidance, do not hesitate to reach out to our team at Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy program. Just click here to access free technical assistance, or check out our resource library. We’re here to support you every step of the way.