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Educating, Engaging, and Empowering Voters

By Tom Watson on October 10, 2008No Comment

But every vote does matter, especially in these hotly contested times.  If you vote as a Republican in New York or a Democrat in Texas, you are sending politicians a message, and making your voice heard.  And consider this – in the 2006 Midterm election, Joe Courtney, a Democrat, beat incumbent Republican Rob Simon by only 83 votes to become the Congressman from the Second District of Connecticut. 

While both the public and private sectors have spent time and money to get people to the polls on Election Day, as well as to ensure that each vote cast at the polls is actually counted, the system remains flawed. The statistics on voter turn-out  during national elections are compelling, but not surprising.  According to the U.S. Census, for example, only 48% of voting-age Americans voted in the 2006 Midterm election; levels of education and income tended to be predominant indicators of voter turn-out. 
What many nonprofits don’t understand is that they can, and should, be part of the solution. In fact, one might argue that it is part of an organization’s mission to engage those they serve in the civic process.  But many nonprofits are wary of the potential legal ramifications of involving themselves too deeply in voter engagement.

However, nonprofits, especially those working on the ground in local communities throughout the nation, may serve as the best mechanism to address the systemic issues concerning civic participation. By addressing this important issue, nonprofits have the ability to change the face of American democracy.
How can nonprofits engage their constituents and increase voter participation legally?  Stay nonpartisan. As tax exempt organizations, nonprofits are explicitly prohibited from directly or indirectly intervening in any political campaign or candidate.

With this in mind, there are actions that nonprofits can take legally to help their constituents participate in the process. 

Most importantly, encourage citizens to vote. In most states, nonprofits are permitted to hold registration drives (in a few they are not, so call your Secretary of State’s office before you engage in such activity)! 

The IRS consistently has said that 501(c) nonprofits may carry out voter education on candidates so long as they are non partisan. Accordingly “other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.”  Examples can be found at:

It is also legal to hold phone banks or to send foot canvassers out into the community in order to remind people to vote and to provide them with nonpartisan information and current polling place details.  For example, Community Voices Heard, a nonprofit headquartered in East Harlem, NY, will be sending paid nonpartisan canvassers into Queens in the upcoming weeks. While the timing coincides with the upcoming election, a spokesperson explains that this effort is “not isolated to voter outreach and turnout, it also integrates post-election involvement to better the organization and their communities.”

Nonprofits are often grassroots organizations serving specific groups to which they have close ties.  This gives them a unique position in empowering underserved groups in the civic process. Therefore, each nonprofit should use different tactics to increase voter turn-out amongst their constituencies. Luckily there are reports tailored to just that.  The James Irvine Foundation’s report New Experiments in Minority Voter Mobilization explores effective strategies in increasing voting rates, especially among low-income and ethnic communities.  The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE)’s Young Voter Mobilization Tactics provides several best practices on how to get minorities to register and increase their rate of turn out.  And the American Association of People with Disabilities’ site provides information to individuals with disabilities on their legal rights when it comes to voting.
Just as engaging, educating, and increasing voter turnout protects the integrity of American elections, it emboldens the causes nonprofits aim to provide. In other words, nonprofits’ constituencies become important constituencies for local and national politicians.  In a perfect world, politicians would address these issues because it is the right thing to do. But, as we have seen, politicians are not always models of morality, often operating in their own self-interests.  When under-represented individuals demonstrate their desire and will to vote, however, they become an increasingly important constituency base for candidates to court.  Politicians at the national, state and local levels must work to formulate and pass legislation and policies that address minority rights, our educational systems, the rights of people with disabilities, individuals without healthcare…the list goes on.

The integrity of America depends on the integrity of our democracy. Voting is more than a civic duty, but a way for each individual to hold our leaders accountable for their decisions. Yet, most Americans do not turn-out to vote, and if they do, they are disproportionally higher earning, educated, white Americans. Simply stated, many of the constituents the nonprofit sector serves are not those casting their votes.

This is where charities need to step in.  Take the next four weeks to engage your communities and bring out the vote. No matter what your organization is fighting for, your constituents will be heard, their opinions will be counted, and your cause could benefit. As Michael Stoops, the Acting Director for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. explained, one of the most incredible things about our democracy is that “(a) homeless vote is equal to that of a rich person’s vote; it’s an important endeavor and way to empower homelessness.”

So what are you waiting for? Educate, engage, and empower your constituents. You have less than four weeks to go!

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