Journalism in the Public Interest

Political or Not? You Be the Judge

Nonprofit groups that hold tax-exempt status in exchange for promoting social welfare are injecting millions of dollars into the presidential race.

Unlike political action committees, these groups — known as  501(c)(4)s for their section of the tax code — do not have to disclose their donors.  

As ProPublica has reported, some of these groups have said they would not engage in political activities in applying for IRS recognition of their tax status, then have submitted filings later showing they have done the opposite. Some groups also have reported in their tax returns that they have not spent money, directly or indirectly, to influence elections. Yet in separate filings to election officials they have reported paying for  television ads that seem overtly political.

We used our new Dark Money Database to find several examples of nonprofits that said “no” when asked about political spending on their 2010 tax returns. Then we reviewed ads they told the Federal Election Commission they paid for during the same time period.

Take a look and tell us whether you think the ads are political or not:

Women’s Voices Women Vote Fund (leans liberal)
Applied for IRS recognition of its tax-exempt status on Dec. 8, 2005. Said it would spend on elections on IRS Form 1024, but reported no election spending on its 2010 tax return. View details »


Let Freedom Ring (leans conservative)
Applied for IRS recognition of its tax-exempt status on May 20, 2004. Said it would not spend on elections on IRS Form 1024; reported no election spending on its 2010 tax return. View details »


Americans for Prosperity (leans conservative)
Applied for IRS recognition of its tax-exempt status. Reported no election spending on its 2010 tax return. View details »

Something that took me a long time to realize, “it’s all politics.”  You can’t run a company or a “social welfare” organization without a political agenda to promote your work.  There needs to be an interest in legislation, regulation, budget, and mindshare that demands political activity to survive.

The question isn’t whether an organization is political, but whether the election is the primary goal.  More specifically, do they back a candidate because he’s the most likely to support their underlying cause or do they back the cause to support the candidate?  I fear that for many organizations today (and for many issues), it has become the latter.

What John said:  “You can’t run a company or a “social welfare” organization without a political agenda”. . .

When government has tentacles everywhere in everything, then everyone must rent-seek.  If you don’t join in the dance, you will suffer laws and regulations written against your interests.

Hmmm, are there areas government shouldn’t control?  Would there be less corruption and barely disguised bribery with less government?

I guess if these NON profits showed the amount of money they spent on their non political education we could at least see the ?balance?

I just got a call from the ACLU wanting money for the work it thinks it needs to do in this “highly political” season. The caller said doing political work as a nonprofit was not illegal, that every group does it. I was horrified.

The difference between supporting a political candidate or cause or not is usually pretty stark. One happens to be illegal for nonprofits, otherwise they lose their 501(c)(3) status, which would be devastating for them.

Our system is designed to prevent moneyed groups and individuals from supporting candidates. That way lies bribery, undue influence, and outside control—all utterly anti-democratic. Supporting causes is an different matter. Pay for ads supporting or attacking gun control all you want, just don’t try to buy a legislator. That leads to extortion, fraud, and a graftocracy.

That’s what’s really harmful about the Citizen’s United decision. In rendering organizations voters, our confused justices have replaced votes with money. Instead of one person, one vote, our country now operates on the principle of one dollar, one vote. And once money rules, it won’t be easy to turn back. Power tends to beget power.

Politics is only a part of our prosperity.
The economy is not going back to Medieval system - no tax, no rules of governments but some free royal lunches once in a while.
It’s an evolving, electronically connected newer world of 21st century where a royal prince of Arabian desert and a laborer in the US gas-field, both have to play by the same tax rules.
It takes all of us, who are AWARE of things like this ProPublica, to make the change.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Buying Your Vote

Buying Your Vote: Dark Money and Big Data

ProPublica is following the money and exploring campaign issues you won't read about elsewhere.

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