Pre-Election Activities for Arts Organizations
Recently, I sat down with former Massachusetts Senate President Stan Rosenberg to talk about what arts organizations should be doing in preparation of the upcoming elections. Here are highlights of our conversation.
Thanks for joining me to talk about pre-election activities that we all should be doing.
My pleasure, I always enjoy talking about how the arts and culture can take a leading role in our country.
I hear from people who work for a nonprofit, often a 501(c)3, who ask if they can be involved in elections. Can they get involved, and if so, how?
Their participation would be limited, especially around electioneering and contributions to campaigns. If you want to support a candidate, you can’t do it as a 501(c)3—only as a 501(c)4. But, if you just want to communicate with voters in a nonpartisan manner, don’t endorse, and fairly and accurately communicate positions of candidates as a 501(c)3, you can do voter guides, hold a forum, etc. You just can’t ever endorse a candidate, nor can you provide a contribution, whether it be money or in-kind.
What are the top things you should be doing as an employee of a 501(c)3 vs. as an individual?
Many C3s engage in limited but useful activities in an election cycle. The key is that you cannot spend any of your organization’s money, your staff time, or other organizational resources in support of any individual candidate. But what you can do is you can collect information, such as sending out a candidate questionnaire and accurately and completely reporting it through a voter education program. But, no endorsement! If you wish to go beyond, you must switch to your personal hat; as an individual, you can do anything you want from collecting signatures, to volunteering, fundraising, etc. on your own time. You must be very careful you don’t do it during normal working hours. You must sign out, not get paid, use your vacation time, etc. There are no restrictions as an individual in any way from engaging on behalf of a candidate or a ballot question. But, be very careful and strict as an employee and manager not to do any campaigning on behalf of a candidate.
You mentioned voter guides and said, “accurate and complete.” Why do you have to be accurate and complete? Why can’t you edit the responses, and who do you all invite to be part of a survey?
So, “Accurate and Complete” creates a situation where nobody can accuse you of creating any biases or favor of a candidate or opposed to a candidate. It is wise to construct surveys to have “yes” or “no” answers; or if you are going to allow text, limit it to a certain word counts
What happens if you work for the government—how does the Hatch Act come into play?
The Federal government has a strict law, the Hatch Act, which prohibits a federal employee from engaging in any political activities for any candidate. At the state level, many states have similar laws—so check with your state elections office, secretary of state, office of political campaigns, finance, or whatever it is called. They can give you guidance as to what you are allowed or not allowed to do as a state employee. [For example,] in Massachusetts, you can do anything except raise money. This means you can’t ask folks for money for a candidate and you can’t use your home for fundraising. You can use your home for a coffee meeting—but nobody can ask for money while in your house. Check your state laws. Also, check with your local government, town clerk, or county admin office for any local restrictions. Keep in mind the restrictions for a public employee are very different from the rules governing a 501(c)3.
Do the same restrictions come into play if you work for the government but do your campaign activities during for non-work hours?
In Massachusetts, you still can’t raise money on your personal time. If your spouse isn’t a public employee, they can raise money. While you should check your state’s campaign laws, you generally can volunteer for a candidate on your personal time provided you don’t use government resources.
Let’s talk about candidate endorsements. While a 501(c)4 organization can do this, should it? When is endorsing a good idea and when is it a bad idea?
Look at a continuum of activities—endorsing candidates is on the very high-risk end. If you endorse the wrong candidate, your organization or cause can be hurt. There are many organizations that develop the capacity to analyze and predict who will be the likely winner, and therefore feel they are willing or able to take the risk. And if they make wrong choice, they can rebound. You can always try to make up with the winner. But, you can place your cause at risk. So be careful.
What about scorecards—when should they be created and what should they include? Can they focus on a single topic?
Scorecards are tricky to do. The first major decision is, are you only going to record or include votes on legislation and amendments, or are you also going to include procedural topics? Are you only going to include roll call, or also voice votes? Many legislatures adopt or defeat most legislation by voice vote. [In those cases,] as it is not a recorded vote, we can’t see how folks voted. Many legislatures reserve roll call votes for significant [issues] with serious differences of opinion. There are also votes on procedural matters. Postponing consideration, or referring to committee, might be ways to delay consideration of a bill—and perhaps hostile or friendly if you want to kill the bill. In many cases, a scorecard will focus on substance votes, not procedures. As you follow the lead of your party, you tend to follow your leaders on procedural votes. So, you are supporting your party, and not really voting against the bill. If you use procedural votes [on a scorecard], it can be confusing to voters, so don’t do it.
Regarding when you start: You need to start at the beginning of the legislative term when you know priorities. Once you have figured out your agenda, you can monitor and follow up with legislators, educating them on your bills. Make it clear that these are priorities, so legislators understand that you will be following these bills, and that they will be a measure of their support for the arts. Collect information throughout the whole term, and then you can inform the public just by giving them the information. For example: Here are our five priorities; three got to the flow of the House; and this is how all of the members of the House voted on these three priorities. These are the other two that didn’t get to the floor. This is what happened in committee; this is who was helpful in committee, and who wasn’t helpful. But, you need objective standards. Be very careful using something like “he made four phone calls on our behalf” [if you] have no documentation.
You can then communicate to the voters before the primary, as many incumbents will be up for re-election. Especially if they are opposed, make it clear what their voting record was during the term. Then, continue public education [for the] general election.
Regarding candidate forums, what are the rules? Should an organization do it alone or go in with a group like the League of Women Voters?
First, some basics: Make sure that all the candidates who are qualified for the ballot are included in the forum. Make sure you have a moderator who can manage the debate so the rules are followed. Figure out in what order people will speak and how that is determined. [What about a] time limit? How is it enforced? Are there going to be questions between the candidates? You need a strong and clear plan on how many questions, how long the answers can be, and you have to make sure that by the time it is finished, everyone has had roughly the same amount of time and they were heard clearly. In other words, it has to be fair! Also, decide if you will have media or audience questions, and who decides the questions.
The League of Women Voters or other civic engagement organizations are excellent to partner with, as they have lots of experience and great formats that they have developed over many years. They follow their guides well, have good moderators, work out process well and fairly. So partnering with an organization like this makes all the sense in the world. Eventually, your organization might develop your own process and guides and be experienced enough that you decide to do it alone. If you are doing it for the first time, do it with a partner!
If I work for a C4, should we have a Political Action Committee (PAC)? Are they important, or are they more trouble than they are worth?
A PAC can help, but again when money is involved, it raises the stakes for the C4 and for the level of risk you are taking. It is one thing to put out a non-biased voter guide or hold a fair forum, but as soon as you endorse, you enter in to higher risk. And if you involve money or resources, then you are upping the ante. If you win, your reward will be larger, but if you lose, you risk of alienation will be greater.
Anything else you want to talk about or points you want to emphasize?
A sustainable part of the population is not registered to vote, and this is something that is low risk—not that you should necessarily hold a registration drive, but you can partner with another organization and encourage people to get registered and to vote. Like arts advocacy, this Is a fundamental part of our democracy because decisions that get made in legislative chambers—locally to nationally—have dramatic impact upon the arts. Encouraging people to engage (within limits of the law!) is critical to advance the interests of the arts community.
Senator, thanks for your time and expertise, it is always appreciated!
My pleasure. Good luck to everyone as we approach November.