Voters Want Clear Rules for Nonprofit Politicking

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December 6, 2014; Battle Creek Enquirer

A new bipartisan poll released by the conservative Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy & Civic Renewal and the liberal Public Citizen shows that more than 80 percent of voters think it is important to have clear rules concerning political activities of nonprofit organizations. In a co-written article, Bradley Center director Bill Schambra and Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, say that eight in ten voters think that “organizations taking advantage of unclear regulations is a problem, showing that they are rightly concerned with the consequences of the absence of clear rules.”

They called the poll an effort “to discuss new ways to reform the IRS’ treatment of nonprofit political activity and to hear from a vital voice that has so far been silent—that of the voter.”

Many nonprofits have been criticized for spending too much “dark money” to influence politics, while others criticize the IRS for subjecting certain groups applying for nonprofit status to increased scrutiny based on their names. Schambra and Gilbert say that the current nonprofit rules are “vague and difficult to administer,” pointing out that they’ve been blamed for last year’s IRS scandal.

The poll indicates that among voters who had an opinion, “a majority favored changing the way nonprofit activities are regulated to establish clearer and fairer rules for what counts as political activity.” The Gannett piece also said the poll found that voters overwhelmingly favored disclosure of political spending by nonprofits.

The authors say that the poll comes at an important time; last November, the IRS proposed a new definition of political activity that would apply to 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations. (Most community-based nonprofits are C-3’s.) It was criticized for being too restrictive and endangering such activities as candidate forums and voter registration campaigns. The IRS is revising the rules and will publish a new draft early this coming year.

The poll was conducted by two polling firms, one Democratic and one Republican. The numbers of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents polled reflected the proportions of projected likely national 2014 voters from each of those parties.

“The poll results show that nonprofit political activity isn’t an issue that matters only to tax lawyers,” Schambra and Gilbert wrote, continuing:

“The integrity of nonprofits must be protected so they can continue to fulfill their mission to serve the public. Naturally, groups as diverse as ours do not agree on everything that the new rules from the IRS should include. However, we think the IRS should listen to conversations like those taking place between our groups, as well as to the resounding agreement among disparate members of the public, to inform their decisions on what the next draft of their rules should contain.”

—Larry Kaplan