Can Nonprofits Promote Census Engagement?

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By now, everyone knows that charitable nonprofits have vital interests at stake – including dollars, data, and democracy – to make sure the 2020 census produces quality counts. But as 501(c)(3) organizations, can they advocate for and otherwise promote a fair, accurate, and complete count? A related question concerns whether such activities constitute prohibited partisan electioneering: since various partisans have tried to turn the 2020 census into a political weapon, can charitable organizations promote participating in the census without risking their tax-exempt status?

The short answer to both questions in most cases is an emphatic YES – nonprofits can most definitely engage in census-related activities! In general, promoting the census and get out the count (GOTC) efforts are pure forms of civic engagement that are unrestricted by either the limits on lobbying activities (which concern only activities “to influence legislation”) or the prohibition on partisan, election-related activities (which concerns participating in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office”).

Advocacy is fine:  The federal tax laws regulating lobbying by charitable nonprofits do not apply to informing the public or distinct populations about the census, participating in complete count commissions or committees, or speaking out in support of a fair, accurate, and complete count. Plus, charitable nonprofits can actively lobby at the federal, state, and local levels for full or better funding and processes for the 2020 census – just keep track of your lobbying time for reporting purposes.

Nonpartisanship is fine: The longstanding Johnson Amendment in federal tax law does require nonprofits to remain nonpartisan, which means they may not endorse or oppose candidates for public office. But promoting the census, such as by engaging in GOTC efforts or encouraging people to be counted, would not be partisan, election-related activities. Just because some politicians and their operatives have tried to misuse the 2020 census for their partisan gain, their self-serving actions cannot diminish the rights of charitable nonprofits to work in support of a fair, accurate, and complete count. Federal law requires every person to fill out the census questionnaire. There would be no violation of the Johnson Amendment’s mandate for nonprofit nonpartisanship under 501(c)(3) when nonprofits encourage people to fulfill their legal obligation to complete the census form. Partisans may want one group of voters or another to be dissuaded from completing census questionnaires, but that’s not how the law or nonprofits see things. Everyone counts, so everyone must be counted.

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