Tax-exempt institutions in the US, including many museums and cultural nonprofits, have certain responsibilities when it comes to their political presence. In broad strokes, these organizations shouldn’t participate in any activities deemed “partisan,” actions that appear to support or oppose a candidate or party.
This doesn’t mean museums can’t engage in election advocacy at all, however. So where does the line get drawn? In advance of the upcoming presidential election, American Alliance of Museums (AAM) has released a helpful guide outlining what institutions can and can’t do.
Some of these protocols may be self-explanatory — museums shouldn’t tell their staff who to vote for — but others are less obvious.
Did you know museums are allowed to support or oppose a ballot measure? An institution may understandably want to get behind a budget increase for the cultural sector, for example. But they can’t let their staff volunteer for a candidate or party during work hours. Museums can serve as polling or voter registration sites and host nonpartisan candidate forums, but they can’t allow only certain candidates or parties to rent their space, or offer them discounted rates to do so.
Several New York City institutions are revving up for Election Day on November 3. The Brooklyn Museum will be a polling site this year; the New York Public Library, meanwhile, is providing extensive voting resources, including material in Spanish and Chinese, guides for newly naturalized US citizens, and a “2020 Election Reading List,” which includes books focused on critical issues such as healthcare, climate change, and equity.
The most important takeaway from AAM’s guide may be this: museums can (and, in our opinion, should) encourage voter registration and make it as easy as possible for their employees to get to the ballots on election day. Being flexible with staff schedules, including Election Day as an organization-wide holiday, and allowing workers to use personal leave are just a few ways they can contribute to a better voter turnout come November.
Read the AAM’s “Guide to Election Year Activities” in full here.