Photo by Kari Sullivan, on Unsplash

By Sandy Wiegand, Copyeditor and Writer at Joining Vision and Action

With Election Day fewer than 70 days away, the pandemic lingers, and doubts about ballot delivery continue to swirl around us. It’s easy to feel anxious about the prospect of uncounted—or uncast—votes.

At least, that’s how I have been feeling about the election: overwhelmed and worried, and a bit powerless. And I’m wondering whether JVA’s nonprofit partners are feeling similarly.

I’d done a little online searching for voter registration drives to join in my area, with limited success. Anyway, I wasn’t super sure these efforts made much difference (especially in Colorado, which already does a lot to make voting easy). So many people seem to be checked out and just don’t vote.

According to the U.S. Elections Project, nationwide, about 60% of the voting-eligible population (VEP) cast ballots in 2016, and about 50% of the VEP did so in 2018. In Colorado (same charts), those figures were higher—almost 72% in 2016 and 61.4% in 2018. The pandemic is unlikely to raise these rates.

Reasons for hope

But I’ve run across a few resources this week that made me do a little rethinking and provided some hope and inspiration. It’s good news for nonprofits and has also helped me find a path that feels meaningful individually.

For example, I was surprised to learn from the Nonprofit VOTE report Engaging New Voters that in 2018, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and Latino Decisions, 57% of Latino voters said they had not been contacted about voting.

The report explains:

“Voters who don’t show up at the polls are labeled as ‘unlikely voters,’ and as such, are not contacted by campaigns about voting. Without that critical voter contact, they don’t vote, fueling a negative feedback loop as the cycle repeats itself.”

But efforts to engage these potential voters can be effective. An evaluation of Nonprofit VOTE’s 2018 work found that individuals contacted at a nonprofit/partner site while receiving services “voted at higher rates than other registered voters in their state across all demographics.”[1]

So it turns out that there are promising techniques for turning nonvoters into voters. Some of them are pretty simple, and nonprofits tend to be particularly well positioned to support nonvoters in becoming motivated and casting ballots.

And YES, it can be done in a nonpartisan manner that doesn’t threaten an organization’s 501(c)(3) status.

A toolkit for nonprofits

Recent JVA client the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities (the Alliance) works with changemakers nationwide to increase capacity and otherwise boost impact. It has partnered with Nonprofit VOTE, which specializes in this work, to release a new 40-page guide to support nonprofits in engaging their clients in voting.

Webinar on Engaging Voters

To hear directly from toolkit contributors, join the Alliance for a webinar, 2020 Elections and COVID-19: Strategies for Engaging Voters and Mobilizing Communities, September 8 from 1–2:15 p.m. Mountain time. Panelists will describe tactics and strategies they have used to engage staff and community members in the democratic process and how they are adapting those strategies for COVID-19 conditions and constraints. The webinar will also feature a representative from Nonprofit VOTE, who will discuss online voter registration, mail-in voting tools, and more.

Strategies for Mobilizing Voters: A Toolkit for Nonprofit Community-Based Organizations (downloadable here) has four sections, covering the following:

  1. A guide to nonpartisanship, i.e., what 501(c)(3) organizations and individuals who work at them can and cannot advocate for
  2. Information organizations may need to register, educate and mobilize potential voters
  3. Thoughts on how engaging voters and remaining nonpartisan can strengthen communities and develop civic leaders
  4. An appendix and workbook to help implement the ideas in the rest of the guide

Why nonprofits?

But why should nonprofits take on this task, especially as they are stretched thin by the demands and cuts imposed by the pandemic and its effect on the economy?

It might be argued that the way COVID-19 has played out in this country is one major reason changemakers MUST do all we can to see that the votes of the marginalized are counted.

What’s more, as the Engaging New Voters report mentions, “As nonprofits, we regularly interact with those who have been left out of the democratic process. By leveraging our deep roots and trust with the communities we serve, we can foster higher levels of voter engagement, helping to ensure their engagement, helping to ensure the issues of concern to the community are addressed.” (emphasis added)

The Alliance guide reiterates: “Members of (the Alliance) are uniquely positioned to reach individuals across the country who are younger, lower-income, and more diverse than the general public—groups that historically vote at lower rates.” (emphasis added)

Beyond voter registration

Here are a couple of the interesting strategies suggested in the Alliance/Nonprofit VOTE guide:

  • Start by ensuring staff, board and volunteers are registered to vote
  • Ask registered voters to make a pledge to vote. Research suggests that such pledges actually increase voter turnout.
  • Obtain contact info of those taking the pledge, so you can send out reminders of deadlines

Along with making a pledge to vote, many organizations are also stressing the value of making a plan to vote. That is, a voter can write out action steps. Will they vote by mail or in person? When should they expect to receive a ballot?

For guidance on the laws in your state (or someone else’s), Nonprofit VOTE’s Voting in Your State pages should have answers. For deadlines and options in Colorado, you can also check out this Colorado Times Recorder list of “10 Things You Need to Know About Voting in Colorado This November.”

One example: Colorado counties pull address lists in September, so now is the time to be updating addresses and registering.

Other efforts

As for my individual efforts, my latest search has turned up the 501(c)(4) Vote Forward, whose Big Send campaign is targeting traditionally underrepresented registered voters across the country who the group believes are relatively unlikely to vote.

Volunteers for Big Send (which, it should be noted, is not nonpartisan) agree to write letters to these individuals, all to be mailed out on a target date.

The organization claims significant success with letter-writing in the past, stating that in a randomized controlled trial in the 2017 special election for U.S. Senate in Alabama, turnout among letter recipients was 3.4 percentage points higher than turnout in the control group after adjusting for gender, age and other factors.

So that’s where I am going to start. Before I read the Alliance and Nonprofit VOTE guide, I’d probably have been more skeptical, but now it feels purposeful.

Do you, or does your organization, have ideas or plans for getting people to vote (and vote early!)? I’d love to learn about them and potentially share them in a future blog. Comment below or email me!

[1] Alliance for Strong Families and Communities & Nonprofit VOTE. (2020). Strategies for mobilizing voters: a toolkit for nonprofit community-based organizations.