Requested by: April Ferguson
On Behalf of: AFN GOTV Committee Co-Chair
Prepared by: Jenifer Kohout, Assistant Director
Date issued: September 1, 1998
Subject: Voter Registration Activities
This letter responds to your August 10, 1998 request for an advisory opinion regarding a series of district parties. It memorializes my telephone discussions with your regarding the plans of your group. It follows an initial response to your question which was drafted by staff consistent with the provisions of the old campaign disclosure law. That response was rewritten to reflect the latest judicial holding.
As you are aware, the constitutionality of the 1996 amendments were recently challenged in court. On August 10, 1998, the 1998 amendments were declared unconstitutional by the superior court and the State was directed to conduct the election under that previously existing law. However, on August 14, 1998, the Alaska Supreme Court issued a stay of the lower courts decision until September 16, 1998. The advice in this opinion may change once the Supreme Court issues its final decision.
As long as the district parties hosted by the Alaska Federation of Native Get Out the Vote Committee qualify as election-related educational events, no prohibited activity will result. To ensure that the events qualify as educational, the GOTV Committee may not directly or indirectly encourage party attendees to vote for or against specific candidates or ballot measures.
AS 15.13.150. Election educational activities not prohibited. This chapter does not prohibit a person from engaging in educational election-related communications and activities, including: . . .
(3) the sponsorship of open candidate debate forums;
(4) participation in get-out-the-vote or voter registration drives that do not favor a particular candidate, political party, or political position. . . .
The Alaska Federal of Natives (AFN), a non-profit organization, annually sponsors a Get Out The Vote effort to encourage Native people to register and vote. The AFN committee who organizes the AFN voter registration effort is called the Get Out The Vote Committee.
Currently, GOTV is planning a series of district parties. You indicate that the planned party in District 21 is an example of future parties. The district parties have the following purposes: (1) to encourage Native people in the district to register to vote; (2) to encourage Native peoples in the district to vote in the primary; and (3) to provide information about the candidates in the district along with the proposed ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments.
You indicate that GOTV has invited all the candidates in District 21 to come and speak in a moderated forum. Each candidate will have the same amount of time and will be asked to address the same "Native issues" such as subsistence, "English Only", education, the Western Alaska fishing disaster and prisoners rights. You state that the audience will have an opportunity to ask the candidates questions.
Draft invitations for the District 21 Party confirm the information provided in your advisory opinion request. The invitations indicate that all four candidates in District 21 will be at "Get Out The Vote PICNIC" and will be available to address "subsistence, education, disaster relief, "English only" and other Native issues." The invitations mention free food, games and door prizes.
Under the 1996 amendments to the campaign disclosure law, only individuals and registered groups may make contributions or independent expenditures for or against candidates. Corporations are specifically prohibited from using corporate money to contribute or make expenditures related to candidates. However, there are no comparable restrictions on who may make contributions to or independent expenditures on behalf of ballot measure groups.
Is the District Party an educational event?
To the extent that the activities you describe are purely educational and are directed towards nonpartisan voter registration, they are election educational activities under AS 15.13.150.
The Commission has not yet had an opportunity to address AS 15.13.150, which was added to the law with the 1996 amendments. The apparent intent of the provision was to specifically identify an area of educational election-related communications and activities not regulated by the campaign disclosure law. Even prior to the 1996 amendments, however, the Commission considered educational activities to be outside the purview of AS 15.13. Thus, prior decisions by the Commission provide guidance in interpreting AS 15.13.150.
In an Advisory Opinion to John McKay, the Commission concluded that a voter registration drive was not subject to AS 15.13 when the sponsor did not limit its efforts to registering people of a particular partisan group but conducted the drive on as wide a basis as possible. In addition, the Commission considered as evidence of its neutrality, the fact that the sponsor conducted voter registration drives on an ongoing basis. See Advisory Opinion to John McKay, August 22, 1990.
With respect to the sponsorship of candidate and issue forums, the commission has considered a forum to be educational if it is structured in a way that it does not favor a particular candidate or side. Instead, it provides an opportunity for the expression of the views of all candidates or both sides of a ballot measure. In an Advisory Opinion to Joe Sonneman on February 8, 1993 regarding the Bill Egan Forum, the Commission set out guidelines with respect to forum activity. The Commission concluded that the Egan Forum would make an expenditure subject to AS 15.13 if "it sponsored a meeting whose speakers discussed a ballot issue without inviting speakers to represent each side of the issue; it sponsored an election debate between political candidates without inviting all the candidates for that seat; it permitted a speaker to use a meeting as a forum to directly advocate his or her candidacy; it otherwise sponsored direct advocacy rather than issue advocacy."
The following points suggest that the district parties qualify as a nonpartisan voter registration events and as forums for a discussion of issues relevant to Native people consistent with AS 15.13.150. First, with regard to the voter registration effort, invitations do not target voters with a particular partisan affiliation. Flyers inviting individuals to the district party are distributed to all Native peoples in the voting district regardless of their party affiliation. Second, the voter registration drive is not connected to a particular election. You have indicated that AFN sponsors a get out the vote effort every year.
In addition, the district party appears to qualify as a educational forum for the following reasons. First, GOTV has invited all candidates for House District 21. Second, the Committee will give all candidates who attend an equal amount of time to address issues relevant to Native peoples.
As long as the district parties qualify as election-related educational events, regional corporations would be free to donate jackets; corporations may make contributions or gifts to the event; and regional corporations may set up tables to register voters. No limits or reporting requirements would apply under the campaign disclosure law. As we discussed on the phone, however, there may be federal legal restrictions on the activities.
As staff discussed with you on the phone, however, the GOTV committee may not directly or indirectly encourage party attendees to vote for or against specific candidates or ballot measures. The type of encouragement that would make the district party a political, rather than educational, event includes the attendance of political action committees which favor only one side of a particular ballot measure or one candidate; the statements of invited speakers which urge voters to support or oppose specific candidates or ballot measures; or the distribution of GOTV sanctioned information which urges voters to support or oppose specific candidates or ballot measures.
In subsequent discussions with staff regarding these concerns, you responded as follows. First, you indicated that GOTV will not invite specific political action committees to attend the parties. However, the event will be open to any PACs which wish to attend. Second, you agreed that GOTV would not invite speakers to advocate only one side of a specific ballot measure. However, if a candidate chose to address a specific ballot measure during his or her allotted time, GOTV would not be responsible for their comments. Finally, you acknowledged staffs concern that GOTV not distribute information urging support or opposition to specific candidates or ballot measures.
Finally, one of your questions states that "[a]ny member of the public who attends [the party] will be eligible for a door prize." You ask whether the door prizes may be limited to people over 18. Offering door prizes at an election-related event is not regulated by the campaign disclosure law. However, as staff indicated to you on the phone, door prizes may trigger federal election law concerns. There may be other laws that regulate this activity, however, the Commission lacks jurisdiction to advise you on this matter.
The GOTV committee may sponsor district parties to register voters and to educate voters about issues relevant to Native peoples as outlined above. However, the GOTV committee may not sanction the support or opposition of specific candidates or ballot measures if the event is to remain within the parameters of election-related educational activities.
The Commission approved the advice in this letter by an affirmative vote of 4-0 on March 24, 1999. The advice in this opinion applies only to the specific activity for which the advice was requested.
A copy of the original letter requesting the above advisory opinion is available upon request at the Alaska Public Offices Commission. 907/276-4176.