Local elections are coming up on April 6, 2021, and it is these elections, often featuring school board races and school funding referenda, that PTAs and their members are most often involved with. Because PTAs are 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, the IRS sets specific limits on what PTAs can and can’t do regarding elections. Failure to follow these requirements can cost your PTA its nonprofit status.
The best way to remember what PTAs can and can’t do regarding elections is the phrase, “Issues, not people.” That means that PTAs should engage on issues, voter registration, and voter education, not specific candidates. Therefore, PTAs:
- Do not endorse individual candidates. The IRS prohibits 501(c)3 organizations from endorsing individual candidates.
- Do not allow political campaigning at PTA events. While you may have a PTA member who is a candidate for elected office attending a PTA event because their child goes to your school, you cannot allow the person to speak as a political candidate at the event. If the candidate is your PTA president or event chair and needs to speak at the event, they cannot mention that they are running for office during their speech. If the candidate posts a selfie with your PTA’s logo in the background on their social media or campaign site, you should ask them to take the image down to protect your PTA’s 501(c)(3) status and to avoid any implication that the PTA endorses the candidate.
- Do not solicit or accept donations or sponsorships from a political campaign fund. Such donations give the appearance of support for the candidate by the PTA. Candidates can donate personal funds to support PTA activities (e.g., paying a membership fee from their own pocket to join your PTA).
- Do not link the PTA name or logo with a political candidate or party. PTA members running for office may cite their PTA leadership experience as one of their qualifications for office, but cannot have the PTA appear to endorse them. Likewise, if a PTA leader is asked to speak at a candidate’s campaign event, they should be introduced without citing their PTA position (e.g., “Our next speaker is local PTA president Jane Smith.” Is not allowed).
- Do not send ballot issue or election literature of any kind home with students. The backpack express may be a convenient way of sharing PTA information, but for election issues, the PTA must use its own resources to share that information.
While there are some specific things your PTA cannot do regarding elections, there still is a lot that is allowed under the IRS regulations. Your PTA can:
- Sponsor voter registration efforts. PTAs must register everyone qualified to vote that asks to do so and can’t screen registrations (e.g., only registering Democrats or Republicans).
- Encourage citizens to vote. PTAs can publicize election dates and polling places as well as a list of all candidates running for office.
- Produce voter education materials. Voter guides or voting records must include information for all candidates (or note that the candidate was contacted and did not respond).
- Host candidate forums. All candidates must be invited to participate in the forum, though some may choose not to do so. Each candidate should be given equal time to speak.
- Support or oppose ballot issues. PTAs can endorse issues such as bond referenda if their membership votes to do so. Likewise, PTA Councils can endorse issues if a majority of PTAs in the council are directed by their membership to do so. While candidates may have a position for a ballot issue as part of their platform, that does not mean that the PTA supports that candidate, and the PTA cannot endorse a candidate that supports their position.
- Produce literature on your PTA’s position on an issue. PTAs may produce literature on their position on an issue that their membership has voted to support or oppose. The IRS limits the money spent for such activities to “an insubstantial amount” of the PTA’s gross revenue (i.e., all the money the PTA takes in during its fiscal year). This amount is generally viewed as being less than 5% of gross revenue. Note that this limit applies to all of the PTA’s lobbying throughout the year. If your PTA votes to spend PTA funds to develop advocacy materials, it must be approved at a general membership meeting and recorded in the minutes.
Finally, National PTA has partnered with Nonprofit VOTE to create a series of election guides and other materials to help PTAs navigate the legal ins and outs of nonprofit election laws. These materials include:
- Permissible Activities Checklist (en Español)
- Candidate Appearances (en Español)
- Hosting a Candidate Forum
- Nonprofits and Ballot Measures (en Español)
- Nonprofits, Voting, and Elections
- Education Questions for Political Candidates
- PTA Election Guide 101 (PowerPoint)
- Voting Information for Illinois (and other states)
- National PTA’s Online Voter Registration Tool
Advocacy efforts are a great way for PTAs to engage with their community, to energize their members, and to attract new members, but be sure to follow the requirements above when doing so to protect your PTA’s nonprofit status.
Photo © 2010 by Alan Cleaver under Creative Commons license.