501(c)(3) nonprofits may carry out voter education on candidates and ballot measures before an election. In particular, the IRS cites voter guides and candidate forums as acceptable activities 501(c)(3)s may do on a nonpartisan basis. This section discusses three commonly used voter guides: Candidate Questionnaires, Voter Guides, and Sample Ballots.
Candidate questionnaires serve two purposes. First, they collect information about the candidates for voters. Second, they let candidates know the range of issues of concern to the organization(s) preparing the guide. Questionnaires do take time to prepare and require care to ensure they are nonpartisan. If you wish to do a candidate questionnaire, consider these key factors in determining whether a voter guide is nonpartisan:
- Do the questions cover a broad range of issues related to the broad interests of the electorate? For example, do the questions address a range of issues relevant to a specific elected office or reflect a truly broad range of concerns within your issue area?
- Are the questions or any description of the issues clear and unbiased in both structure and content?
- Are the questions posed to candidates identical to the questions you later publicly print or post online?
- Are the candidates given a reasonable amount of time to respond?
- If the questions ask the candidates to respond with “Yes” or “No” or “Undecided,” are candidates given the opportunity to give short one or two sentence explanations to explain their positions in their own words?
- Have all major candidates responded?
Q: What if the candidate does not respond?
You may list “Did Not Respond.” When a candidate fails to respond, some 501(c)(3)s choose to provide information about the candidate that is a matter of public record or on their website. If you do, be sure to stick to strictly factual information—name, address, etc.—and avoid efforts to summarize the candidate’s positions on issues, which might appear to be slanted to favor or disfavor the candidate. You should provide candidates a reasonable time period — for example three weeks—to give their responses and information. As the deadline nears, let the candidates know that if they don’t respond, you will print “did not respond”. While not required, it is a good practice to give the candidates the chance to review the final draft of their information and make any last minute corrections.
Voter Guides on Candidates and Ballot Measures
If you are doing a voter guide, we suggest making it short and easy to print or post online. Voter Guides takes time to prepare and are ordinarily prepared by coalitions or broader, nonpartisan voter engagement entities. The guidelines for nonpartisanship for voter guides are the same six factors described above for candidate questionnaires.
A voter guide may include:
Guide to Candidates (including all running for a particular office*):
- Name and photo of candidates
- Current occupation, party affiliation
- List of major endorsements provided by the candidate
- Campaign contact information
*At your discretion you may exclude candidates not considered viable.
Guide to Ballot Measures:
- Brief Summary of what a “yes” or “no” vote means
- List of major endorsements provided by Yes/No ballot measure committees
- A list of top financial contributors to each side
A helpful nonpartisan educational activity is to distribute a sample ballot for your jurisdiction – ideally an official sample ballot prepared by state or local elections officials. Sample ballots help voters have a picture ahead of time of what’s on the ballot and what the ballot will look like. If you wish, you may add short explanations of the office up for election or translate the sample ballot into languages relevant to your community.
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