Tuesday, November 17, 2020
Election 2020: Pre-Election Walking Up To (and Over?) the 501(c)(3) Political Campaign Intervention Line
As happens every election season, in the run-up to the 2020 election there were a flurry of news stories about Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3) charities pushing up against, and maybe pushing through, the political campaign intervention prohibition. With over 65 years of guidance from the IRS, as meticulously compiled by Steven H. Sholk of Gibbons P.C., you would think just about every possible situation has been addressed, yet charities and candidates continue to come up with new ways of walking right up to, and maybe crossing, that line.
For example, in mid-October the Washington Post reported on a closed-door session of conservative activists, including leaders of a number of 501(c)(3)s, discussing electoral tactics from challenging mail-in ballots to ballot harvesting. The story quoted nonprofit experts Roger Colinvaux and Marcus Owens as being concerned that the involvement of 501(c)(3) leaders raised questions about their organizations' compliance with the political campaign intervention prohibition. In response, some of those leaders stated they were not there on behalf of the groups they lead.
At the more local level, in Kansas a state senate candidate included on his campaign signs not only that he had founded a church and thrift store, but also included the organization's logo. The candidate insisted that the sign was purely informational. But as I noted to the reporter who wrote the story, the problem is the inclusion of the group's logo, which constitutes the use of the charity's property for the candidate's benefit. And the story also reported appearances by the candidate at two churches, which did not provide his opponent with a similar opportunity to appear.
And of course there were other reports of more common but still problematic support of candidates. These included a Kansas state house candidate using mailing equipment owned by a church; his campaign reimbursed the church for the cost of that use, but it does not appear that the church made the equipment generally available for use by the public or other candidates on similar terms as required by IRS guidance. And a Catholic priest in Mississippi called then candidate Joe BIden "an embarrassment to Catholicism" from the pulpit in late October.
There is no indication that any of these events have led to adverse IRS attention, although of course the IRS has a number of years to pursue an audit or, in the case of the churches, a church tax inquiry.