Corporations and the 2016 Federal Election: Do You Know What Your Employees Are Doing?

As the 2016 presidential primary season proceeds, we are quickly approaching the summer conventions and the November presidential election. With the political contests becoming more heated, this post is part of a new series on what different entities and groups need to know about their political activity as the 2016 election approaches.

One of the key principles of federal campaign-finance law is that corporations are prohibited from making political contributions to federal candidates, political action committees, and party committees. This means not only that corporations are prohibited from writing checks to federal candidates, political action committees, or parties, but that a corporation should not use its resources—or allow its resources to be used—for any federal election purpose (though some exceptions exist for a corporation’s federal connected PAC). This prohibition on the corporation’s activity must be balanced, though, with the individual political activity of a corporation’s employees. Although a corporation may not make federal political contributions, a corporation’s employees have a First Amendment right to engage in the political process.  To maintain this balance, corporations should keep the following guidelines in mind:

Employees MAY:

  • Make individual political contributions with personal funds.
  • Volunteer or work for a political campaign on their own time.
  • Run for political office.

Employees may NOT:

  • Be reimbursed for any political contributions they make.
  • Use any corporate resources (including letterhead, printers, conference rooms, and mailing lists) for federal-election purposes.
  • Provide even individual volunteer services for a federal campaign during normal business hours—the corporation’s time is itself a resource of the corporation.
  • Take even unpaid leave to work or volunteer for a federal campaign if the leave is granted in a way that demonstrates a preference for one candidate or political party.
  • If an employee runs for political office, the corporation may not endorse the candidate or indicate support through such avenues as a newsletter or website.

Because the scope of what is prohibited is so broad, it is important for corporations to adopt and enforce political-activity policies to ensure that employees are not unknowingly making prohibited political contributions by performing work for a political campaign during paid business hours or by using corporate resources for political purposes. Similarly, corporations should have a plan in place to govern how and when employees are entitled to take unpaid leave to work or volunteer for a federal campaign.

Corporations may be faced with navigating these and other challenges in this heated political season. It is therefore important for corporations to begin thinking about how to navigate between the federal prohibition on corporate political contributions and the First Amendment right of a corporation’s employees to engage in the political process.