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Election Law Frequently Asked Questions for Sponsored Student Organizations

what election-related activities are off-limits to sso's?
In general, SSOs cannot engage in election-related activities that the University would be prevented from undertaking under state or federal law. Accordingly, when an SSO acts in its capacity as a unit of the University of Michigan or is using University funds or resources, it cannot engage in election-related activities such as the following:

  • Donate money to support or oppose a ballot initiative, proposed legislation, or political candidate;
  • Volunteer for campaigns by writing letters, making phone calls, knocking on doors, or distributing flyers in support of or opposition to a candidate, proposed legislation, or ballot proposal;
  • Organize rallies in support of or opposition to a political candidate, proposed legislation, or ballot proposal;
  • Write letters to the editor or op-ed pieces in support of or in opposition to a political candidate, proposed legislation, or ballot initiative;
  • Write, or encourage others to write, to elected officials to express opinions in support of or against a candidate, proposed legislation, or ballot initiative; or
  • Host a fundraising event in which the proceeds are used to support or oppose a political candidate, proposed legislation, or ballot initiative.

what are considered to be university funds or resources?
University funds include any money from any University source (including MSA). University resources include property owned by or managed by the University, as well as services provided by University faculty or staff. As a result, SSOs are strictly prohibited from using the University's name (e.g., U-M, Michigan, Wolverines, Go Blue, or other protected forms), the University's logos (e.g., the Block M), University e-mail accounts, copying machines, mailing lists, stationery, telephones, or computers for campaign-related activities or lobbying efforts.

what election-related activities are permissible for sso's?
SSOs may engage in activities that relate to political issues if those activities are educational and non-partisan in nature. These educational activities must present "a sufficiently full and fair exposition of the pertinent facts." Examples of permissible educational activities include:

  • Voter registration drives (if conducted in a non-partisan manner);
  • Candidate debates and forums as long as certain procedures are in place to ensure a fair and neutral forum for all qualified candidates; and
  • Distribution of non-partisan voter guides or other factual information if certain guidelines are followed.

what are the penalties for violating the laws about participating in a political campaign?
It is a misdemeanor to knowingly violate Section 57 of Michigan's Campaign Finance Act. The law is enforced by the Michigan Secretary of State. Individuals who knowingly violate this law are subject to a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment of up to one year or both. Also, if the Secretary of State determines that the University has knowingly violated the law, the University could be fined $20,000 or an amount equal to the value of the resources used, whichever is greater.

In addition, if a charitable organization engages in lobbying in excess of the federal limits or in prohibited campaign activity, the organization may lose its tax-exempt status, resulting in all of its income being subject to taxation. In addition, the organization may be required to pay excise taxes with respect to the prior improper political activities. Furthermore, in some cases, an additional tax equal to 5% of the improper lobbying expenditures may be imposed against organization officers who knew of the expenditures' likely unlawfulness but approved them anyway.

does state or federal law limit my ability to engage in political activity as an individual (rather than as an SSO)?
No, the law does not in any way restrict the ability of individuals, acting on their own behalf and using their personal time and resources, to participate fully in political activities. When you are engaging in political activities as a private individual, you must not say or imply that you are acting on behalf of the University or your SSO, and must not use University/SSO resources to undertake your personal political activities.

whom should an sso consult to determine if a planned SSO activity is permissible?
SSOs should first speak with their sponsor to determine if the activity is consistent with the sponsor's mission. The sponsor may direct additional questions to either the Student Activities and Leadership Office or the Office of the Vice President and General Counsel.