Nonprofits Should Educate Voters but Not Tell People Who to Vote For
OpEd by Marnie Taylor, President and CEO
Last month, Oklahoma City elected a new mayor – David Holt. As Tulsa did just two years ago with G.T. Bynum, the city has chosen its new leader. There will be a lot of excitement for both of these young men as they continue to put our two largest cities on the American map as innovative change makers and great places to live.
The only unfortunate thing about last month’s election was the dismal turnout at the polls – just 8.4 percent according to the Oklahoman. That means nine of 10 eligible voters didn’t make it to the polls. I personally got to my polling station at 7:00 a.m. and was first in line, but I can attest it wasn’t a robust line.
Nonprofits have a unique opportunity to get more people to the polls. Last fall, the Oklahoma Academy spent three days discussing voter engagement in its annual town hall. Nonprofits are more involved in advocacy and public education, and one way to advance our messages is to engage voters, inform them on issues and encourage them to get out the vote.
One way nonprofits should not get involved in elections is through candidate endorsement. We are still deeply concerned that language weakening or eliminating the Johnson Amendment – the 1954 IRS rule that prohibits nonprofits and churches from endorsing candidates – could make its way into a funding bill or as a standalone bill in Congress.
Nonprofits should not be a tool for candidate endorsement or as a funnel for campaign funding for candidates at any level. I have had discussions with leaders in the nonprofit sector, clergy and other faith leaders, donors, board members and business leaders and they consistently tell me that allowing nonprofits to endorse candidates is a terrible idea. It could cloud our missions, tear apart our staffs and split our board rooms.
I urge nonprofit leaders and their allies to continue having conversations with policy makers about the damaging effects of eliminating or weakening the Johnson Amendment. There are better ways for nonprofits to be involved in civic engagement through public education, advocacy, lobbying and encouraging people to vote and make informed decisions at the polls. We are not a sector that is here to enter the world of candidate endorsement.