Political Campaigns and the ARRL
By David Sumner, K1ZZ
ARRL Chief Executive Officer
Revised October 24, 2012
This year’s federal election campaign is one of the most contentious in memory. Non-profit organizations that are tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, as is the ARRL, must pay strict attention to what they can and cannot do during campaign season.
The IRS has issued a fact sheet that is available on the web. The fact sheet goes into more detail than either space or your likely attention span would allow here, but in view of our ongoing legislative efforts the subject is worth some discussion.
First, to address a common misconception: tax-exempt non-profits are not prohibited from attempting to influence legislation. The ARRL can lobby, and we can encourage individuals (principally our members) to lobby, on behalf of our legislative positions as long as the resources we devote to this purpose are "insubstantial." Exactly what that means is beyond the scope of this paper, but the ARRL is in no danger of exceeding the limit.
What is prohibited is any involvement in a political campaign. Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. The prohibition applies to all campaigns at the federal, state and local level, and violating it could result in revocation of tax-exempt status.
Political campaign intervention includes any and all activities that favor or oppose one or more candidates for public office. Endorsements of candidates are prohibited, of course. So are contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position made by or on behalf of an organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. Distributing statements prepared by others that favor or oppose any candidate is not permitted. Allowing a candidate to use an organization's assets or facilities also violates the prohibition if other candidates are not given an equivalent opportunity.
Leaders of organizations are free to speak for themselves, as individuals, about candidates. However, for their organizations to remain tax exempt under section 501(c)(3), leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization. This applies to anyone who may be perceived as speaking for the ARRL. Leaders who speak or write in their individual capacity should always indicate that their comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of the organization.
As we said at the outset, the ARRL may take positions on public policy issues, including issues that divide candidates in an election for public office. However, we must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention. Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, we risk violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate. The IRS fact sheet lists the key factors that are used in determining whether a communication, including a Web site or a link to someone else's Web site, amounts to prohibited intervention. Links are particularly tricky since the content of a linked site may change over time.
For us this is not simply a matter of the law. It is also a matter of principle. By long tradition, Amateur Radio and the ARRL are staunchly non-partisan. Individual ARRL members can and should be politically active, but we should never imply that the mission of the Amateur Radio Service is more closely aligned with one political party than with another.
Over the years we have been fortunate to win many friends on both sides of the aisle. We want to keep them.