The following appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Nonprofit Advantage, produced by the Connecticut Association of Nonprofits.
This fall, 33 Senators, 36 Governors and all 435 members of the House of Representatives will be on ballots across the country. Already, 47 ballot questions are certified for spots on nineteen statewide ballots. There are lots of decisions to be made.
The ballot box is critical to nonprofits’ larger advocacy and policy efforts. Voter engagement can help your organization build clout. Elected officials pay attention to which communities and which populations turn out and are generally more responsive to organizations involved in registering voters and encouraging turnout.
Moreover, voting is associated with a host of positive attributes: People who register and vote are more likely to talk to their neighbors, meet with local officials and engage in other civic actions. Studies show that states with higher voting levels have higher levels of self-reported health, lower ex-offender recidivism rates and even lower unemployment.
In addition to empowering clients, higher participation rates help nonprofits further their missions and complement advocacy and public policy work. Ultimately, the only way to have representatives and laws that support your work is to vote and to encourage other people to do the same. Voting is an extension of your dedication to providing quality care and services, which is why it’s equally important to encourage the people you serve to vote.
Nonprofits are trusted and respected in their communities. Because of the populations nonprofits reach, their voter engagement efforts have the potential to significantly contribute to the diversity of the electorate, particularly among underrepresented populations. Perhaps most importantly, nonprofits have proven to be effective at increasing turnout among the people they serve. A 2012 study conducted by Nonprofit VOTE and CIRCLE, Can Nonprofits Increase Voting?, found that nonprofit service providers raised turnout rates among those least expected to vote and also closed gaps in voter participation across all demographics. Young, low-income and Latino voters contacted by nonprofits voted at rates 15-18 points higher than their counterparts in the general population.
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization may not support or oppose a candidate for public office or a political party. However, nonprofits are free to conduct a wide range of nonpartisan voter engagement activities designed to educate the public and help them participate in elections. This can include voter registration, voter education, get-out-the-vote efforts and nonpartisan candidate engagement. Nonprofits are effective messengers and promoters of active citizenship and engaged democracy, reaching people too often missed by partisan campaigns.
How to Be Successful
Successful voter engagement involves being prepared and making plans. Think about designating a staff lead, potential outreach strategies and getting buy-in from leadership and other staff. Use Nonprofit VOTE’s 2014 Voter Registration and Engagement Timeline to guide your efforts.
Voter engagement strategies differ for every nonprofit. Think about how you connect with your community and where it might be appropriate to have conversations about voting. This could include classes and trainings, while providing services or at community events. Consider participating in National Voter Registration Day on September 23.
Try to use personal, face-to-face contact whenever possible and create a sense of urgency around the election by highlighting an issue on the ballot. Be prepared to ramp up your efforts as Election Day approaches.
Make the election visible on your website, through social media, in your communications and at events. Place a badge on your website to direct visitors to voting information or have them register to vote.
It’s important to know about the voting rules in your state, such as registration deadlines, voter ID requirements, eligibility for ex-offenders and early voting opportunities.
Visit Nonprofit VOTE’s resource library for materials to get your voter engagement efforts started.