End of the line for nonprofit voter guides?

John Dimsdale Nov 16, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: The ’06 elections are finally in the rear-view mirror. But subtle campaigning and not-so-subtle fundraising for ’08 has already started. And political advocacy groups are taking notice of a settlement reached yesterday between the Federal Election Commission and the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club agreed to pay a $28,000 fine. The FEC had ruled a voter guide the club distributed during the 2004 campaign crossed the line between voter education and advocacy. And that’s making a lot of other politically active nonprofits nervous, as Marketplace’s John Dimsdale reports from Washington.

JOHN DIMSDALE: In the past, nonprofit advocacy groups knew they couldn’t tell someone which candidate to vote for. But the Supreme Court allowed a broader interpretation of illegal advocacy.

The case involved a Sierra Club voter guide distributed in Florida in the 2004 campaign. The guide didn’t say to vote for presidential candidate John Kerry or Senate candidate Betty Castor in so many words. But the FEC decided the brochure’s meaning was unmistakable.

Trevor Potter, a former FEC commissioner, says the Sierra Club voter guide was more than just educational.

TREVOR POTTER: They made it clear they wanted people to take this information and guide their vote and the information was big checkmarks next to people who had good environmental records, no checkmark next to someone who had a bad environmental record. This was saying when you go into the voting booth take into account the fact that these candidates are good and these candidates are bad.

GREG HAEGELE: The FEC has waded into very fuzzy terrain here.

The Sierra Club’s Greg Haegele says non-profit groups no longer know what’s allowed in political communications.

HAEGELE: We certainly disagree with the FEC as we made clear, so we were surprised they interpreted what are frankly very confusing standards this way.

Campaign finance experts say regulators are investigating dozens more complaints about nonprofit groups crossing the line. They expect other politically active organizations, especially evangelical churches, to be snagged by the stiffer restrictions on political speech.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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