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Election Law Overview for Student Organizations

laws affecting election-related activities
Both Michigan and federal law regulate the ways in which public institutions can participate in election-related activities. These laws limit what individuals or groups acting on behalf of the institution can do and how public resources can be used to influence the outcome of a political campaign or election.

Michigan Law

Section 57 of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act prohibits public bodies and anyone acting for a public body from using public resources to influence the outcome of candidate elections or ballot proposals. Under this Act, the University of Michigan cannot use public resources:

  • To support or oppose a political candidate; or
  • To seek the qualification, defeat, or passage of a ballot proposal.

Michigan law defines "public resources" broadly to include, for example, funds, facilities, computer hardware and software, postage, and personnel. The Act applies to candidate elections and ballot proposals at all levels of government (federal, state, and local).

Detailed information about the Michigan Campaign Finance Act and the University of Michigan's guidelines for compliance with that Act are available at the Office of the Vice President for Communications website.

Federal Law

The federal Internal Revenue Code and regulations limit the political activities of 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations, such as the University of Michigan and the Michigan Student Assembly (MSA). Under these regulations, tax-exempt organizations are:

  • Prohibited from participating in all campaign activity (at the federal, state, or local level) in support of or in opposition to political candidates; and
  • Strictly limited in the amount of funding they can use for lobbying activities. Lobbying is defined as attempting to influence legislation by contacting, or urging others to contact, members or employees of legislative bodies for the purpose of proposing, supporting or opposing legislation, or advocating for the adoption or rejection of legislation.

Detailed information about the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidelines regarding political campaign intervention by charities, churches, and educational institutions is available on the IRS website.

implications for recognized student organizations
Although these federal and state laws may not seem to be directly relevant to student organizations, they do have important implications for recognized student groups. For example, these laws do apply directly to Sponsored Student Organizations (SSOs) because SSOs operate as units of the University of Michigan. In addition, neither the University nor MSA can fund a student organization activity that the University or MSA could not undertake on its own. Thus, neither the University nor MSA will grant Voluntary Student Organizations (VSOs) funding to conduct an activity that the niversity of MSA could not themselves do under Michigan or federal law.

Please see the appropriate FAQ pages listed on the left for questions that pertain to your organization's sponsored status.