Understanding how barriers to voter participation change by election cycle is an important part of developing a strategy for your nonprofit’s voter engagement work. In short, providing useful and relevant information about elections, candidates, and choices takes on greater importance in local election cycles like 2023 when lack of information is the primary reason cited for not voting. By contrast, strategies like ensuring voters are registered before their state deadline can take higher priority in high-profile presidential election cycles when information (for the top of the ticket at least) is more readily available in the news every day. 

In voter surveys cited in How We Voted in 2022, from the MIT Election Data + Science Lab, the number one reason for voters choosing not to vote in the 2020 presidential election cycle was “didn’t like the choices.” By 2022, “didn’t like the choices” dropped to number five, with the new top reason cited for not voting being “didn’t know enough about the choices.”  

Off-cycle years like 2023—dominated by local elections and ballot measures—are too often marked by an extreme lack of information fueling notoriously low voter turnout. Often voters don’t even know an election is taking place! These off-cycle elections also tend to exacerbate voter participation gaps, resulting in local elections and policy that are “disproportionately influenced by older affluent white voters” (National Civic League, 2020).  

Ideas42 and Democracy Works attempted to dig deeper into how voters of color in particular approach and participate in local election in their report, Voting Local: Promoting More Equitable Participation in Local Elections. Based on previous work, secondary research, and interviews with a select group of voters who generally only vote in major presidential elections, Ideas42 and Democracy Works surfaced four key reasons for voters choosing not to vote in local elections. The top reason cited was people not feeling prepared enough to vote in the local election. Again, not having adequate information. This was followed by a closely related fear of making the wrong decision, the consequences of which felt worse than not voting.  

With that understanding, to build out effective voter engagement programs in 2023, nonprofits should consider including a voter education component. Helping stakeholders understand what local offices actually do and the impact local government has on issues of concern to the community—from quality schools to affordable housing—are important starting points. However, it’s important to build on this foundational voter education strategy with nonpartisan information on the actual candidates and choices.  

Consider distributing nonpartisan candidate guides that help voters better understand the choices before them. There are several online voter guides from trusted sources, such as the League of Women Voters’ Vote 411.org. However, due to limited resources, the guides don’t cover all local elections, so be sure to check each of the guides and make sure they provide useful information on your particular local elections before deciding which tool to distribute. Another way to provide useful information about the candidates is to co-sponsor a nonpartisan candidate forum with other nonprofits in your community. See Nonprofit VOTE’s “Hosting a Candidate Forum: A Nonprofit Guide” for tips on organizing a forum. 

Finally, it’s always good for nonprofit voter engagement strategies to include election reminders that include information on early voting options, as well as polling hours and locations for Election Day. You can find information at canivote.org or by contacting your local election office

While local election cycles like 2023 present unique challenges to getting voters engaged, there is one big silver lining: Your nonprofit can have a much bigger relative impact due to the less saturated environment. Unlike presidential and midterm years when voters may be getting contacted by various groups, you may be the only group contacting them in a local election cycle. And with the low voter turnout of local elections, even a small nonprofit can have a significant impact.