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State law requires some nonprofits to register voters

Nonprofit workers who attended a Voter Mobilization event gathered for a group shot.
Photo by Scott Russell
Nonprofit workers hold up four fingers, signifying the Nov. 4 Election Day, during a recent voter mobilization event at Metro State University.

Here’s a surprising nugget from the pages of Minnesota election law. If a nonprofit organization receives state funding to provide services, it is required to help with voter registration.

Joshua Winters, who coordinates the Minnesota Participation Project for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, gave me the citation: Statute 201.162.

“… [A] nonprofit corporation that contracts with the state agency to carry out obligations of the state agency shall provide voter registration services for employees and the public. A person may complete a voter registration application or apply to change a voter registration name or address if the person has the proper qualifications on the date of application. Nonpartisan voter registration assistance, including routinely asking members of the public served by the agency whether they would like to register to vote and, if necessary, assisting them in preparing the registration forms must be part of the job of appropriate agency employees.”

Winters said many 501(c)3 nonprofits think they need to keep arm’s length from any election work — even nonpartisan efforts. That’s not the case.

Nonprofits come in different stripes (under different U.S. Internal Revenue Service rules). The 501(c)3 nonprofits (such as Habitat for Humanity and Big Brothers/Big Sisters) get the benefit of receiving tax-deductible gifts, but can’t take sides in elections. The 501(c)4 nonprofits, (such as AARP and the Christian Coalition) have more flexibility to be partisan and influence elections, such as issue advocacy, but donations to the groups are not tax deductible.

The Minnesota Participation Project focuses on educating and motivating 501(c)3 organizations to get involved in nonpartisan efforts, voter registration, Get Out to Vote drives and candidate forums.

Minnesota already has high voter turnout. But some groups — communities of color, low-income people and students — vote at lower rates, Winters says. That’s where nonprofits are helpful. They have earned trust and access in those communities and can encourage people to vote.

MCN has produced a nonprofits’ list of election do’s and don’ts. One more surprise on the list: Nonprofits can advocate on ballot measures, such as school referenda. “It is the one exception to the rule,” Winters said.

Statewide effort
I talked to Winters at St. Paul’s Metro State University, where he was getting ready to speak to a crowd of approximately 80 nonprofit workers who attended MCN’s June 3 Voter Mobilization Kick-Off event. It’s among more than a dozen such events MCN will hold around the state this year.

The event drew a cross-section, from Minnesota Environmental Partnership to Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota.

Deb Most, director of member services for the Minnesota Social Services Association, said her organization would encourage members to hold legislative candidate forums, particularly in Greater Minnesota. Lenora Taylor, office manager for St. Paul’s East Side Neighborhood Development Company, came to get materials while her organization decided what election work it would do.

Everyone who attended got a “Vote November 4” T-shirt and voter registration materials. They included voter registration cards, brochures in multiple languages and a large cardboard box with “REGISTER TO VOTE HERE!” written on the side and a slot in the top, so agencies could use it to collect completed cards.

Common Cause returns
Also attending was Mike Dean, executive director of the re-created Common Cause Minnesota. Common Cause, a government watchdog group, has not had a Minnesota state chapter since 2000, when the national organization shifted its attention and resources to passing McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, he said.

Common Cause is now rebuilding state chapters. Locally, it’s a small operation.

Mike Dean
Photo by Scott Russell
Common Cause Minnesota Executive Director Mike Dean

Dean is the organization’s only employee. It has a budget he termed “over $100,000.” It will open a Minneapolis office June 10, sharing space with the Seward Neighborhood Group. It doesn’t have a board of directors yet (it’s running under the national organization’s umbrella until the state board is formed.)

Still, Common Cause is getting its oar in the policy waters. Its priorities include working to promote the Quie Commission’s recommendations on judicial selection (PDF), (headed by former Gov. Al Quie).

Common Cause also plans to create a commission to look at Minnesota’s openness and transparency laws, with an eye toward recommendations for the 2010 legislative session. Questions? Dean can be reached at 612-770-6908.

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