Responding to the 2020 Debates
The 2020 presidential debate cycle is off to a start tonight and we can expect it to be one of the busiest with all major networks broadcasting the debates and an almost record-breaking 27 presidential candidates. During the debates, it is likely that candidates will discuss issues of interest to 501(c)(3)s. How can organizations respond and engage in the conversation?
Yes, 501(c)(3) organizations are strictly prohibited from engaging in partisan political activity in support of or in opposition to a candidate or political party. However, this does not mean a 501(c)(3) cannot respond to statements– but they must make sure that they have a good, nonpartisan reason for responding. For example, an organization can correct a factual error that is core to the organization’s work. When an organization does respond to a candidate’s statement, we advise them to avoid mentioning the candidate by name, their political party, voting, or the election. Instead, we advise organizations to respond to the statement alone. For more tips on how to respond to candidates during election season, see our fact sheet, Commenting on Candidates and Campaigns. It is likely that many groups will want to respond on social media while the debates are being broadcast. As we discuss in our publication, Influencing Public Policy in the Digital Age, the IRS has not specifically addressed how election and lobbying rules apply to social media. However, 501(c)(3)s should be sure that their social media posts follow the guidance we offer above when crafting messages on social media. When using links to websites, 501(c)(3)s need to be sure that sites they link to do not contain partisan political information. The use of hashtags should also be done in a nonpartisan manner. While it is fine to use #debate in your tweets, it would not be advisable for a 501(c)(3) to use #KeepAmericaGreat or #WeRise because these would indicate impermissible support for a candidate. While it is always important to think before you tweet, it is especially important during election season.