Politics and the Pulpit 2008
Voter Education and Outreach
18. May religious organizations become involved in voter education?
Yes. Religious organizations may educate voters about the issues and about candidates’ positions on the issues. However, voter education activities must be free from bias for or against any candidate or political party.31
Yes. Religious organizations may publish or distribute unbiased voter guides for the purpose of educating voters.32 The term “voter guide” refers generally to a compilation of candidates’ positions based upon candidates’ responses to questions posed or to a neutral compilation of candidates’ positions on the issues. In order to ensure that they are unbiased, voter guides should: include all candidates for a particular office; cover a broad range of issues of interest to voters that would be faced by candidates for the particular office sought; evidence no bias in the selection of questions posed or issues presented; present all candidates’ responses; and contain no editorial comment or other indications of approval or disapproval of any candidates or their positions.33
The range of issues that must be covered in voter education materials depends on the nature of the office sought by the candidate.34 For example, it is not necessary to pose questions on foreign policy to a candidate for the local school board.35 Voter education should cover a wide range of issues that would be faced by a candidate for a particular office. Presenting only a narrow range of issues clustered around a particular topic runs the risk of exhibiting bias for or against particular candidates by implicitly inviting readers to compare candidates’ positions on the narrow range of issues or to evaluate candidates based on the religious organization’s position on these issues. All relevant facts and circumstances will be considered in determining whether voter education materials violate the political campaign intervention prohibition.36
Yes. Religious organizations may, under certain circumstances, publish legislators’ voting records for the purpose of educating voters.37 For example, a compilation of the voting records of all members of Congress on a wide range of issues that is made available to the public during a campaign period would not violate the political campaign intervention prohibition, provided that it contains no editorial comment or other indications of approval or disapproval of any member’s voting record.38 Factors that will be considered in determining whether a voting record distributed by a religious organization violates the political campaign intervention prohibition are: whether legislators are identified as candidates for re-election; whether legislators’ voting positions are compared with the positions of other candidates or of the religious organization; the timing, manner and circumstances in which the voting record is distributed; and the breadth or narrowness of the issues presented in the voting record.39
No. Voter education materials prepared by candidates, political parties or PACs are inherently biased, since they have been prepared to present certain candidates in a more favorable light and thus enhance their chances for election.40 Religious organizations that distribute such materials would violate the political campaign intervention prohibition.
Yes. Religious organizations may sponsor unbiased candidate forums or debates for the purpose of educating voters.41 In order to ensure that a candidate forum is unbiased, a religious organization should not indicate its views on the issues being discussed, comment on candidate responses or otherwise indicate approval or disapproval of any candidate, party or position, or ask candidates to endorse the organization’s positions, agendas or platforms. All legally qualified candidates should be invited to participate. Questions should be presented by an independent, nonpartisan panel and should cover a broad range of issues of interest to the public that the candidate would face if elected. Each candidate should be given an equal opportunity to present his or her views on the issues discussed.42
During a primary election, a religious organization may sponsor a candidate forum or debate that is limited to legally qualified candidates seeking the nomination of a particular political party.43 On occasion, the number of legally qualified candidates for a particular office is so large that it is impractical for a religious organization to conduct a forum or debate to which all candidates are invited. In such circumstances, the organization may adopt reasonable, objective criteria for determining which candidates to invite and should apply the criteria consistently and non-arbitrarily to all candidates.44 For example, an organization that conducted a candidate forum and invited the two major party candidates as well as up to four candidates who had reached a 15 percent share of popular support according to a credible, independent poll would not violate the political campaign intervention prohibition.45
Yes. Religious organizations may conduct voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, provided that they are not biased for or against any candidate, political party or voting position.46 Voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives should not be conducted in cooperation with any political party and should not target members of a particular party. Communications about voter registration or get-out-the-vote drives should be limited to urging people to vote or register to vote, along with listing the hours and places for registering or voting. They should either mention no candidates or all candidates, without favoring one candidate over any other. Communications should not mention any political party except to identify the party affiliation of candidates named.47
38Rev. Rul. 78-248, 1978-1 C.B. 154 (Situation 1). But see Rev. Rul. 80-282, 1980-2 C.B. 178, where the IRS approved the distribution of a biased incumbent voting record only in a very limited circumstance in which the voting record did not identify incumbents who were candidates for re-election, distribution was not timed to coincide with any election but was one of a series of regularly distributed voting records, distribution was not targeted to areas where elections were occurring and the voting record was distributed to a limited membership group and not broadly to the public.
44Election Year Issues at 374. Under Federal Election Commission rules, the sponsoring organization may limit participation based upon pre-established objective criteria, but any candidate debate must include at least two candidates and may not promote or advance one candidate over another. See 11 C.F.R. § 110.13(b).
47Rev. Rul. 2007-41 at 1422; Election Year Issues at 379. The IRS has advised that sponsoring organizations may use voter registration lists to identify unregistered voters but may not use such lists to target voters of a particular party. See T.A.M. 9117001 (Sept. 5, 1990), in which the IRS concluded that a voter registration drive targeted to conservative voters violated the political activity prohibition. On the other hand, targeting historically disadvantaged groups is generally permissible. See, e.g., P.L.R. 9223050 (March 10, 1992), in which the IRS concluded that grants for registering homeless people to vote were not prohibited political activities for the private foundation sponsor.