The United States political system relies on the involvement and participation of its citizens in the election process. Historically, many groups have faced barriers to full participation in this system. §501(c)(3) organizations often wish to host and promote voter registration drives to increase voter participation in the communities and populations that they serve. It is important that §501(c)(3) organizations follow specific guidelines and rules to remain neutral in any election-related activity.
Under the Internal Revenue Code, §501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from supporting or opposing any candidate for public office(1). Examples of prohibited activities include endorsing candidates, opposing candidates, promoting or opposing political parties, making contributions to candidates’ campaigns, or engaging in any biased or “partisan” election-related activities. Bias is the main concern, and organizations must maintain a strict “nonpartisan” stance. If a §501(c)(3) organization does not comply with this rule, the IRS may revoke its §501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, and/or impose taxes on both the organization and its managers.
This article provides an overview of how §501(c)(3) organizations can effectively and safely conduct voter registration drives in the state of Georgia. All employees and volunteers must understand the laws, limits and rules before participating in a voter registration drive. It is also essential for §501(c)(3) organizations to review Georgia’s Voter Registration Rules and Procedures. This document must be printed and reviewed prior to the date of your voter registration drive. Included in the document are certain notices that must be given to applicants, required checklists, and transmission forms.
Organizations wishing to sponsor a voter registration drive may also participate in optional training by their County Board of Registrars’ Office. To request training, submit a Voter Registration Drive Training Request, which can also be found in the above-linked materials.
Generally, the deadline to register to vote is 28 days prior to the next election. All completed applications must be transmitted to the Secretary of State’s Office before midnight on the close of the registration period. In the event that this date falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or legal holiday, then the deadline to register to vote is the next succeeding business day. The Georgia Secretary of State’s website lists Key Election Dates for each specific year.
Who May Register to Vote? All qualified applicants who want to register must be allowed to register. The only reason a §501(c)(3) organization may refuse to give someone an application is if the person does not meet the qualifications and is therefore not an eligible voter.
The qualifications to register to vote are:
A. Applicant is a citizen of Georgia and of the United States;
B. Applicant resides at the address shown on the voter registration application;
C. Applicant is at least 17 and ½ years of age;
D. Applicant has either never been convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude or has completed the sentence for the felony; and
E. Applicant has either never been judicially determined to be mentally incompetent or has had the disability removed.
When conducting a voter registration drive, let applicants know that they are not officially registered until the State records their application. Encourage everyone to check their registration status and polling place online before election day. If a person says s/he is already registered, still encourage the person to check his or her registration status online. Also, ask if the person has moved recently and make sure that the person is registered at his or her current address. And importantly, make sure that all applicants know about their right to cast a provisional ballot in case there is some complication with their registration. The Georgia My Voter Page is the online portal available to verify this information.
When planning a voter registration drive, consider your organization’s target audience and choose location(s), date(s), and time(s) that would best reach this audience. An organization may choose the location to hold its drive by targeting low-income, minority, low-turnout, homeless or student populations. An organization may not target a particular group because they tend to belong to a political party or voted for a certain candidate previously. For example, a §501(c)(3) organization might conduct tabling efforts in the lobby of its office or location, at an event sponsored by the organization, or the §501(c)(3) organization might integrate voter registration into its existing service and outreach efforts. And always remember, the voter registration drive cannot be influenced by, affiliated with, or support any political candidate or party.
What identification is required?
To register, a person must have a valid identification document. A copy of the ID must also be submitted either with the application or prior to or at the time of voting. Make sure to tell applicants about these ID requirements so that they are prepared on election day.
The most common form of ID is a valid government-issued ID card, which includes a FREE Voter ID card or Driver’s License (even if expired). Other acceptable forms of ID include a bank statement, a paycheck, a government check, or any other government document that shows the applicant’s name and address. The Georgia Secretary of State’s website explains Identification Requirements in greater detail.
An organization must take care to keep all completed applications secure and confidential at all times. Applications should always be kept sealed. The State will not accept unsealed applications without a signed acknowledgment from the applicant.
All applications must be filled out by the applicant, with limited exceptions for individuals who are illiterate or disabled. In such a case, the volunteer assisting the applicant must sign his or her name in the appropriate section of the application. No one from the organization can improperly assist applicants in filling out the application.
Organizations must submit completed applications on time in order for them to count! Generally, all completed applications must be transmitted to the Secretary of State within ten (10) days of being filled out or by the close of the registration period, whichever is sooner. If a voter registration drive is held close to the end of the registration period, there is a shorter transmission period, though. If the application is completed within fourteen (14) days of the end of the registration period, then the application must be transmitted within seventy-two (72) hours of completion or by midnight on the close of the registration period, whichever is sooner. Also, let each applicant know that the applicant can submit his or her application on his or her own if the applicant does not want the organization to submit it for him or her.
Just as important as submitting the applications on time is submitting applications to the correct office. State and federal registration applications can be mailed to the Georgia Secretary of State. The address for the Elections Division of the Georgia Secretary of State is:
Elections Division, Office of the Secretary of State
2 Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive SE
Suite 802 Floyd West Tower
Atlanta, Georgia 30334-1505
When submitting applications, be sure to include a Transmittal Summary Form, which can also be found in the state materials linked to this article above.
Volunteer and Employee Conduct. Even the best-intentioned §501(c)(3) organization is only as good as the volunteers and employees it relies on. Improper actions by volunteers or employees can lead to serious consequences for the §501(c)(3) organization. Keep the following guidelines in mind when conducting a voter registration drive.
- Do not assist someone in filling out a registration application, unless the applicant is illiterate or disabled. If someone requires assistance, the volunteer or employee assisting the person must sign the application in the appropriate section.
- Do not refuse to accept or submit a registration application from a qualified individual.
- Do not represent or imply that you or the organization is a representative of the Georgia Secretary of State or Board of Registrars.
- Do not make any statement or action that would discourage someone from registering.
- Do not be inebriated or impaired by drugs or alcohol while conducting voter registration or hold your voter registration drive in a place where alcohol is served or where you know that illegal or criminal activities occur.
- Do not give any rewards or gifts to people who register. In Georgia, it is a felony to give or receive any gift for registering a voter. You can, however, hand out small giveaways like food, candy, stickers, or balloons to the general public. If you do, be clear that any giveaways are available to anyone who asks for them—not just voters or persons who register to vote.
- that are generally associated with a particular candidate or party.
- Do not register an ineligible voter, register a voter under anyone else’s name, or knowingly give false information when registering a voter. In Georgia, this is a felony.
If someone asks a volunteer or employee: (a) who the volunteer or employee supports for elected office or a specific political party, or (b) which candidate or political party the person should vote for or support, the volunteer or employee MUST NOT ANSWER. Instead, the volunteer or employee should remind the person that as a staff member/volunteer of a §501(c)(3) organization, the volunteer or employee must remain nonpartisan. Perhaps recommend that the person talk to a trusted friend or family member. A §501(c)(3) organization volunteer or employee is only permitted to discuss simple facts, like what party a candidate is in, if a candidate is an incumbent or challenger, or where a candidate lives. A volunteer or employee should only discuss these very basic facts and avoid further explanation. For example, a volunteer or employee should not explain the differences between Republicans and Democrats.
While guidelines surrounding election-related activities can seem daunting, if a §501(c)(3) organization remembers to remain unbiased and impartial, it can largely avoid stress or worry. When deciding where and how to conduct a voter registration drive, the organization should be sure to document every decision made at the time when it is made. For example, make records of why the organization is targeting a specific population or area, as well as any other major decision in the process. §501(c)(3) organizations that are considering holding a voter registration drive should contact their attorney for specific legal guidance before doing so.
1 The restrictions regarding political activity are different for §501(c)(4) and §527 corporations. This article focuses solely on legal implications governing political activity by §501(c)(3) organizations.