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Did you know “the voters are speaking with a unified voice in favor of new rules” for nonprofits’ political activity? That’s the claim of the Bright Lines Project, a division of Public Citizen, and it’s laughably untrue.

How do I know? It wasn’t difficult to figure out: First I read the Bright Lines poll that supposedly revealed this “unified voice,” and then I asked the Bright Lines pollster about it.

But you could have guessed the truth with even less work, because the claim assumes that American voters have been thinking a lot about the current rules governing nonprofits and have been following the IRS proposals to modify those rules.

How many people who aren’t employed by political nonprofits do you know who fit that description?

These issues cropped up when Public Citizen and its pollsters released a poll last week at a panel discussion held by the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. The video is available here, and you can listen to my question and pollster Celinda Lake’s response beginning at 50:30.

I told Ms. Lake it was a shame the poll didn’t ask citizens about their knowledge of these rules governing nonprofits, because knowledge questions would have revealed widespread ignorance, which in turn would imply that precious few Americans care deeply about these rules.

I added that this ignorance is shared by U.S. Senators, who, even when sitting in hearings to revise the rules, make it painfully clear they don’t, for instance, have any idea of the difference between a 501(c)(3) vs. a 501(c)(4) nonprofit.

So why, I asked, does Public Citizen’s press release on the poll climax with the grand claim that

On an issue that garners extremely partisan rhetoric, the voters are speaking with a unified voice in favor of new rules.

After all, the poll itself says that voters who “support changing the IRS rules” number only 49%. That’s not even a majority, much less a unity. And a whopping 41% are honest enough to say they aren’t sure/don’t care.

Pollster Celinda Lake – whose Democratic firm joined forces with Republican peers at Chesapeake Beach Consulting to conduct the poll – gave me an entertaining and very honest answer (I’m sure she’d be a boon companion for further discussions at the best place to hold them, which isn’t a think tank but an Irish pub).

Here are some highlights of her reply:

In this case, we don’t need to measure knowledge, because you’re right, nobody’s got any.
     *  *  *
Facts don’t matter that much; it’s the core values, and that’s what we were trying to get at here.

In terms of the overwhelming support, it’s a good point about how that quote sounds out of context and it’s a fair critique. It was intended to be in the context of the memo, and so we were trying to say there – but I’m not defending the wording; it could have perhaps been more artfully constructed – is to say that, of the people who had opinions, there’s overwhelming support.… Our intention was to say that there’s very little opposition.

When the pollsters asked about disclosure of donors, another hobby horse of “good government” types, 29% repeated the don’t know/don’t care answer that reveals this is not exactly a burning issue for them.

 Now let’s look more closely at what kind of question the pollsters had to ask in order to achieve that 49% “unified voice”:

The [government/Internal Revenue Service] is in charge of regulating what these charities and non-profit organizations are permitted to do when it comes to political activity. Some people have proposed to change the way non-profit organizations’ activities are regulated to establish more clear and fair rules for what is counted as political activity. Would you favor or oppose this change or are you not sure?

In other words, the question assumes people don’t care enough to know who regulates nonprofits’ political activities, and it simply asks if people think “more clear and fair rules" are desirable.

How many people are for less clear and fair rules? If we don’t live under clear and fair rules, we aren’t living under the rule of law.

Yet 51% of those polled refused to take the bait and say they support “more clear and fair rules,” along with baseball, mom, and apple pie. I’d say that’s evidence people are smart enough not to trust pollsters. The average American may not know much about section 501(c) of the tax code, but he or she is knowledgeable enough to know a pollster and his paymaster are probably trying to manipulate you for their own political purposes.

And indeed, such manipulation is exactly what one finds in Public Citizen’s press release. In the paragraph before the laughable “speaking with a unified voice” one, the supposedly “good government” group gently notes that its “poll comes as the IRS works to redraft a proposal that could provide just the sort of clarity for nonprofit political activity that voters and nonprofits say they want.”

Got that? Soon the IRS is likely to provide “just the sort” of thing that people who don’t know and don’t care want.

Put these two paragraphs together and you see that Public Citizen is working behind the scenes to shape the new IRS regs to its liking and also trying to drum up “evidence” that Americans everywhere are stamping their feet and demanding the new regs.

Now let’s pause to agree with Public Citizen that across the political spectrum there is strong displeasure with “special interests and big money groups” in politics, to quote another poll question. And the poll is far from being the most biased you could find. When it asks about adjusting the rules for nonprofits, it strives to repeat some of the strongest arguments that are made on the topic by the Right and Left, and in the session at the Bradley Center, everyone on the panel engaged in thoughtful discussion of the poll’s limitations.

But still, this framing of the issue is exactly the kind of scam that “good government” types typically try to sell the public. In this corner, we have wonderfully neutral people like Public Citizen, who just want good government via “clear rules and standards.” In that corner, we have special interests and big money groups who oppose “clear rules and standards.” I wonder which side will have more appeal to Americans, who know almost nothing about the specifics involved?

Want more evidence that Public Citizen is less than transparent about its real goals in this controversy? Go to the video at 1:15:00 and listen to my question to PC’s Lisa Gilbert. She had earlier said that PC didn’t endorse all the details of the IRS’s latest proposal for new rules, which appeared last November. For example, PC didn’t want “nonpartisan” voter registration ruled off limits, even for 501(c)(3)s, which are “public charities” like the YMCA or your local women’s shelter.

Now it would have been valuable had PC’s pollsters asked Americans (1) is it currently legal for YMCAs and women’s shelters to register people to vote? and (2) should it be legal? That would have been an excellent way to begin gauging just the sort of rules Americans support for nonprofit political activity.

But leaving that aside, in front of a DC audience that knows how voter registration actually occurs these days, I got laughs – and nods from pollster Celinda Lake – when I asked PC’s Lisa Gilbert if she could name a single 501(c)(3) in America that is genuinely nonpartisan in its voter registration; that is to say, one that doesn’t use sophisticated data to register persons who are highly likely to vote in the way that the registering group desires?

I believe you can see even Ms. Gilbert crack a smile before she composes herself to make a classic DC answer that is a wee bit less than transparent:

I don’t think it makes sense for me to sit up here naming organizations. I think that there are genuinely groups out there that think about registration for its own sake, that more people voting is a good thing, that we need more folks registered to make that happen. So it’s a good, civic engagement is a good in and of itself. Certainly we don’t want IRS rules that trample on that.

At this point, the Bradley Center’s Bill Schambra diplomatically demurred. “Voter registration,” he reminded us, “is one of the few things that actually did manage to trigger legislation” after the Ford Foundation’s notorious intervention in the 1967 Cleveland mayoral race.

Ford officials then used exactly the cloak to cover their activities that Ms. Gilbert has hauled out now: Voting is swell, civic engagement is good, nobody here is a partisan, we’re just supporting voter registration. But both Left and Right know that the 501(c)(3) Ford Foundation was actively straining for a particular political result – and achieved it with a six-figure grant – and both sides are still rankled by the nonprofit’s machinations, as this article at SocialistWorker.org and this one at David Horowitz's DiscoverTheNetworks.org show.

Schambra observed that “for all the problems and abuses” in the area of nonprofits and politics, it has been “almost impossible” to persuade Congress to do anything. (Note that in this latest campaign, Public Citizen is only trying to gin up support for an IRS-promulgated regulation, not for a new law from Congress.)

And yet Ford’s political involvement in Cleveland outraged the public, or at least the public’s Congressional representatives. Although this occurred some decades back, I’d guess the incident gives us a better insight into the public’s desires than PC’s new poll, much less its press releases.

For the record, I’m not saying the status quo for nonprofits and politics is good; I spend much of my life critiquing it. Nor am I blind to the public’s disgust with the status quo.

I just agree with the 51% of the public who aren’t ready to buy what Public Citizen is trying to sell.

FOOTNOTE: Public Citizen's latest effort is only another chapter in the Left's long crusade for campaign finance "reform," which is an amazing story of a handful of very rich donors who have successfully manipulated the nation's laws. I've described some of that history here. The best day-to-day source of information on the fights over campaign finance "reform" is the Center for Competitive Politics. And for a complete argument on the failure of campaign finance reform, see Peter Wallison and Joel Gora’s excellent Better Parties, Better Government: A Realistic Program for Campaign Finance Reform. I’ve written about the rules governing nonprofits and politics here and here.

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