Have You Noticed It’s Primary Season? Political E-Wisdom

How could you have missed it that the 2016 campaign is up and roaring, right? We at the Digital Humanities Initiative can be heard having vigorous political debates in the lab, Monday through Thursday from 1:00 to 5:00 PM, and of course you are welcome to join us, and get some web tips at the same time. We can’t tell you who we are voting for (see below), but here’s some e-wisdom for the political season.

  • April 19 is the cut-off deadline to register to vote in the New York primary. If you are a student at the New School, but consider an out-of-state address to be your real home, you can still vote in New York by registering here and using your local address (beware: this may also make New York your tax residence and put you in the mix for jury duty.) At that time you will choose to affiliate with a political party, or as an Independent, which would preclude you casting a vote in the primary for a Republican or a Democrat. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, your home can be your dormitory, or it can be the apartment in Bushwick you share with six other people and a parrot. Be prepared to produce a valid, government-issued ID when you arrive at the polls; if you are a first-time voter you must show identification. For all the rules, including instructions on changing your address with the New York Board of Elections, go here.
  • You can invite political candidates to campus under these conditions.
  • Best of all, you can register to vote electronically through the New York Department of Motor Vehicles website.

But please be aware that there are restrictions on your digital political activity using New School email accounts and platforms. Under current tax laws, although people affiliated with 501(c)(3) organizations like The New School may lobby (with some restrictions), they may not use the institution’s resources to oppose or support a candidate or cause, and they are specifically prohibited from election advocacy. This was not always the case. Political restrictions were proposed in, and then cut from, the original 1934 legislation; it was then added to the tax code as an amendment by Senator (later President) Lyndon Baines Johnson, and passed without discussion by the 83rd Congress in 1954. Yet this portion of the law drew very little attention and was rarely enforced until the culture wars of the 1990s, when conservative churches were targeted by liberals for political organizing and college campuses were targeted by liberals as hotbeds of  “tenured radicals.”  Not coincidentally, it was during these years that strategies for reaching voters over the Internet were first being pioneered by the liberal 501(c)(4), MoveOn.org.

Therefore, in this election season and all others, when using New School email addresses and web resources,  you need to be mindful of whether you are engaging in political education (as we are in this post) or political advocacy (making a case on behalf of a candidate or cause.) Whether you are a student, or President Van Zandt; a Bernie Bro or Ready for Hillary; looking to Make America Great Again or Cruz-in With Ted, the following IRS regulations apply:

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.
Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances. For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.

On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.

A full and dizzying set of explanations is available here; a more lucid collection of do’s and dont’s is here. So if we were to follow our hearts and give you twelve reasons to vote for Donald Duck for President? Well, that would be against the law.