Abby Levine

Political Activity and 501(c)(4)s: What Are the Limits?

Are 501(c)(4)s prohibited from engaging in politics? Absolutely not. But that’s the question circulating after an interview Joe Nocera conducted with Sen. Carl Levin, published in Monday’s New York Times:

Toward the end of my interview with Levin, he let slip a tantalizing tidbit. Sometime in the next few months, the permanent subcommittee plans to call the Internal Revenue Service to task for allowing the political super PACs to be classified as tax-exempt 501(c)(4)s. “Tax-exempt 501(c)(4)s are not supposed to be engaged in politics,” he said. “It is against the law to do so.” Then he added, with a certain undeniable relish, “We’re going to go after them.

In fact, 501(c)(4)s have every right to engage in political activity – as long as it is not their primary activity. They may be taxed and there are reporting requirements, of course, but 501(c)(4)s can conduct limited partisan activities, including:

  • Supporting or opposing candidates
  • Endorsing federal and state candidates
  • Distributing communications to the general public — including through GOTV (get out the vote) activities, voter registration drives, billboards, broadcast ads
  • Asking federal and state candidates to pledge to support the organization’s issues if elected
  • Producing candidate voter guides or comparisons of where state and federal candidates stand on the issues

Alliance for Justice shares the concern of Sen. Levin and others that a few groups are breaking these rules and engaging in political activity beyond their limits.  But these few malefactors are not representative of the estimated 110,000 501(c)(4)s across the country – groups that range from AARP to the Sierra Club.

It’s confusing business. For anyone wishing to brush up on their tax and election law, check out our plain-English legal resources:

Fact Sheet: Election-Year Activities for 501(c)(4) Organizations

Lobbying and Political Activities by 501(c)(4)s –  This chapter from our popular resource,The Connection: Strategies for Creating and Operating 501(c)(3)s, 501(c)(4)s, and Political Organizations, discusses the rules governing lobbying and political activities conducted by 501(c)(4)s. It includes a section that describes the rules on 501(c)(4) participation in federal elections after Citizens United v. FEC.