#ynpengage: Get out the vote!
Many nonprofits are advocates for their communities, but relatively few undertake what is one of the most important advocacy efforts of all: getting out the vote.
Nonprofit VOTE is an organization dedicated to providing support and resources for nonprofit organizations to help the people they serve vote and participate in government. We spoke with George Pillsbury, the Founder and Executive Director of Nonprofit VOTE, about what nonprofit organizations can do to help their constituents register and vote.
Why should nonprofits without a specific policy focus undertake voter engagement?
The people that nonprofits serve are voting at lower rates than the general population, and the issues that your organization cares about are not going to be served unless they’re voting. Politicians are not going to be paying attention to constituencies that don’t vote.
Advocacy on your issue year-round is important, but not encouraging voter turnout sort of undercuts the effectiveness of your advocacy. It’s a question of having clout on your issue and having the ability to mobilize voters.
It’s also another service that nonprofits can provide and it’s essential in helping people become active citizens. Registered voters are much more likely to engage with neighbors, talk to elected officials and be civically engaged in other ways. Nonvoters, on the other hand, are more likely to be disconnected from their communities.
There’s been an alarming trend toward restrictions on voting like ID laws and other policies that make it more difficult to vote. What can nonprofits do to expand access to voting and voting rights?
People sometimes say “Voting’s not important” or “It’s what happens after election day that’s more important.” But what happens after election day is affected by the elections and it’s affected by where people campaign and who politicians believe they’re accountable to.
There are powerful forces that want to shrink the electorate and not have people that are marginalized vote: they want to limit younger voters, low-income voters, newer citizens. We want to expand who votes and not contract it. There’s a special opportunity for nonprofits to reach these populations who are new to the voting process and that have traditionally faced higher barriers. These are people that campaigns by and large don’t reach--more than half of eligible voters are never contacted by a campaign. Nonprofits can be a bridge to those communities because it’s reverse door-knocking for us. They are knocking on our door for services and we naturally have that in-person opportunity to talk to people about voting.
What are some specific actions nonprofits can take in this area?
We have to still encourage people to register and encourage people to vote. We have to encourage positive policies like same-day registration and online voter registration.
In general, the three biggest things you can do to increase voter participation are: 1) Increase election day registration, which has proven to be the most effective. 2) Offer online registration, which engages young voters and 3) Offer early voting. The decision to vote on Tuesday was made in 1848 for the convenience of rural voters who had to travel for a day just to get to the polls! The best voting process is to combine traditional voting on Tuesday with voting before the election.
If nonprofits can help people make sure people are eligible to vote, that’s a high priority. We’ve seen in states that have increased the requirements that nonprofits have responded by helping people get IDs, as well as supporting efforts to have sensible voter ID laws.
Nonprofits should make sure that people know that there’s a registration deadline coming up and that there’s an election happening. Any kind of communication with our communities in the two to three months leading up to the election can be used to raise awareness about the upcoming election.
We're also encouraging organizations to mark their calendars for National Registration Day on September 23. It’s like Earth Day for democracy. It’s a day that we make sure that everyone is registered and has the opportunity to vote. 300,000 people registered to vote last year. We’d like to see 500,000 registered this year!
At the end of the day, the most important thing that’s going to help people vote is personal engagement. Most people are never asked in person about registering to vote or voting. Having that in-person contact--not TV ads, not impersonal robo-calls--but having a peer asking you to participate is most critical.
The Nonprofit VOTE site is full of resources for voter registration and engagement, including making sure your activities are permissible under the 501(c)(3) guidelines. Check out the Nonprofit VOTE resource page for other tips and tools.