What Can We Say About Kanye?
On the 4th of July, Kanye West announced to his Twitter followers that he is running for President, using the hashtag #2020Vision. To many, this announcement raises questions of whether Kanye is joking, or if it is even possible for his name to appear on the ballot in November. For the nonprofit advocacy community, this tweet also raises issues of tax law and whether Kanye West should be treated as a candidate. Bolder Advocacy has already received questions from 501(c)(3) organizations who are wondering how they can talk about this announcement, and whether they need to treat Kanye as a candidate.
These questions are important because a 501(c)(3) organization is prohibited from engaging in partisan political activity. This means 501(c)(3) organizations cannot support or oppose candidates for public office and they must remain nonpartisan. It’s clear they should be careful responding to Kanye’s announcement.
When considering the question of whether Kanye West is a candidate, it is important to realize that the terms “candidate,” “public office,” and “nonpartisan” have broad definitions. Under the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), a “candidate” is an individual who offers themselves or is proposed by others as a contestant for an elected office. So even if someone has not taken the legal steps to get on the ballot, they may still be considered a “candidate” for IRC purposes. The term “partisan” includes trying to prevent a public official or potential candidate from running, being nominated, or re-elected. Similarly, the IRC defines “public office” as any position filled by a vote of the people at the federal, state, or local level. This ranges from the presidency to a local city council. The office does not need to be political or partisan in nature to fall within these rules, so even a judicial or school board vacancy that requires a vote by the public will be considered a “public office” for IRC purposes.
Being nonpartisan means more than avoiding express advocacy. Though the IRS has not provided a clear definition for what “nonpartisan” means, there is enough guidance to know that the definition extends beyond messages like “vote for” or defeat.” A handy working definition of “nonpartisan” is: “Any activity that does not tend to help or hurt the chances for election of any particular candidate or group of candidates, regardless of political party affiliation.”
When it comes to Kanye’s potential run for office, in order to remain nonpartisan, 501(c)(3)s should refrain from encouraging or discouraging him to take the necessary steps to get on the ballot. They should also refrain from discussing his fitness or lack thereof for the office of president. A 501(c)(3) could, however, discuss the process for getting on the ballot or any deadlines in their state, without mentioning whether they think Kanye should be one of the candidates for the office of president on November 3. Finally, 501(c)(3)s should be extremely cautious with their use of the #2020Vision hashtag as it quite likely would be considered partisan.
For more information on how to shape your advocacy in an election year, see our election year resource page where you can find all the details you need about election-related activities including voter education drives, candidate debates, legislative scorecards, and responding to and interacting with candidates. For answers to your advocacy questions you can reach our free technical assistance line at 866-NPLOBBY (866-675-6229) or by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.