Just how important is this year’s election? If you answered “very”… you’re right. But the reality is, every election is important, especially for low-income communities. While voter registration and turnout have steadily declined across the income spectrum, low-income communities consistently engage at a much lower rate than do higher-income communities. Because politicians more often respond to the people who put them into office, low voter participation means that the concerns of low-income communities generally end up at the bottom of the “to do” list.
In the 2000 election, only 38 percent of voters below the poverty line voted, compared to 62 percent of those earning more than $75,000. As organizations whose missions are to help build the health and wealth of our communities, one of the most important elements of our work must be to empower the voices of our communities. One way to do that is through voter registration (VR). Our efforts cannot be limited to only the “important” election years. VR must be ongoing and institutionalized in our work.
Anyone who wants proof of a voting community’s power should talk to Reverend Reginald Williams, the president and CEO of the Addicts Rehabilitation Center (ARC) in Harlem. He’ll tell them how voting has changed the Harlem community for the better. Twenty years ago, ARC recognized that communities with stronger voting blocks received better services and more resources than its Harlem community. It realized the only way to turn the tide was to increase voter participation in its own community.
Initially, ARC staff began registering people by incorporating VR into the intake process for their drug treatment program and housing facility. Though this strategy proved successful, they knew that they were reaching only a small portion of the community’s population. ARC pushed other community organizations to become engaged in registering residents to vote. Many of the groups they approached were apprehensive: they worried it would jeopardize their nonprofit status, and they feared reprisal from elected/government officials and funding cuts to their programs. In response to these fears, in the late 1980s ARC helped promote legislation that authorized local agencies to register voters in their communities. The New York City Charter created the Voter Assistance Commission in 1988 to work closely with local groups to develop community based voter registration initiatives and launch media campaigns about voter engagement in a number of languages.
Twenty years later, ARC now registers approximately 1,800 voters annually. Recently, staff members have begun focusing more of their efforts on the youth vote, registering 17- and 18-year-olds. And given the high number of ex-offenders in their community, they also have become involved in Drop the Rock – an effort to repeal the Rockefeller Act, which limits the ability of ex-offenders to regain their voting rights. In addition to registering treatment program participants and housing residents, ARC also posts VR signs prominently throughout its facilities and in the community. Staff members also work with local high schools to register eligible students and blanket the community with buttons that sport slogans like “My Vote Makes a Difference” and “We Vote. We Count. We Win.” They even host concerts as a way to have VR drives.
As each election day approaches, groups of volunteers canvass the neighborhood, targeting local supermarkets and subway stops, going door to door reminding people to vote, providing information on polling sites and times, and posting transportation contact information for people who may need rides to polling sites. ARC staff members often remind people that their vote does count. Reverend Williams has been known to tell people how the low-income housing tax credit program was passed by just one vote.
Bringing in Benefits
Typically, when candidates run for office, they target communities with large voting blocs. And after 20 years of voter registration efforts, not only are the NYC voter rolls filled with voters from the Harlem community, but voter turnout in Harlem has also increased dramatically. Every candidate who runs for an elected office in the city (even some who do not represent Harlem) comes to visit and speak to the community. To date, nearly 650 candidates have addressed Harlem residents. Community leaders have established a rule stipulating that the candidates who speak in the community must return in the “off” election season and continue to build relationships with community leaders.
Residents have taken a greater interest in community issues and have no problem calling their elected officials directly to address issues. (More importantly, their calls are answered!) Candidates have even found that they can call on an extensive bank of volunteers from Harlem, as residents have become more politically aware.
ARC’s efforts have educated Harlem residents and improved their political awareness; neighborhood organizations elsewhere must similarly engage their residents’ voices when working to improve community conditions. Ongoing voter registration, education and mobilization (VREM) efforts should be an essential component of this work. Voter registration and education legitimizes an organization, not only with community residents but also with elected officials. Educated voters understand the importance of putting important community issues on the political agenda of their elected officials and of holding them accountable.
It’s a popular misconception that nonprofits are not allowed to get involved in electioneering and VREM efforts. But as long as the efforts are nonpartisan, both are completely allowable by the Internal Revenue Service (the federal agency that oversees organizations’ 501(c)(3) status) and the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA, or the “Motor Voter” Act) actually encourages non-government entities to get involved in VR efforts in their communities.
Knowing the Steps
Although incorporating VR requires a small amount of preliminary research and prep work, it doesn’t require more staff. ARC started its voter registration efforts just by adding VR forms in the intake packets and helping clients complete the forms, and by posting signs that detailed registration requirements (especially for homeless people and ex-offenders), as well as upcoming registration deadlines and elections. It takes minimal effort to help your community become more engaged in the electoral process.
Step 1. Your organization must learn and understand your state’s voter registration requirements. Your secretary of state’s office is generally the best place to obtain this information and usually you can access the information from the office’s Web site, often with other helpful guides and brochures. You can also get information from the Federal Election Commission’s Web site, which lists every state’s voter registration requirements, including registration deadlines, polling sites and absentee voting requirements.
Step 2. Acquire the voter registration forms. In most cases, you can download the form from the secretary of state’s Web site and photocopy it as needed. However, make sure you comply with any state-specific requirements about the type of stock necessary for printing forms (only a handful of states have this issue). Alternatively, contact your secretary of state’s office or local elections commission and request a supply of forms. Several states provide postage-paid forms, which make it easier for people to return their registration.
Step 3. If your organization plans to accept the registration forms and send them into the elections office for the registrants (which I highly recommend!), some states (Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Nebraska and Texas) require that you become a deputy voter registrar. It is a simple process; it takes about 15 minutes to an hour. If your state requires this, but you choose not to be deputized, you and others in your organization may still distribute and, in most cases, even help people complete the VR forms, but the persons must return the forms to the elections office themselves.
Step 4. Keep a record of whom you register (name, address, phone number, e-mail address). The data you collect during the registration process can be used for Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) efforts as election day nears. Your organization should contact new voters to encourage and help them get to the polls on election day.
Once you’ve completed these easy steps, incorporating VR into your daily routine should be fairly simple. If you’re still not sure of what to do, there are several organizations across the country that can help you. This year, in an effort to expand our advocacy work and training, The Enterprise Foundation provided numerous nonpartisan VR and GOTV trainings, which reached nearly 200 of our local community development partners.
The Enterprise Foundation also has developed a Voter Registration Toolkit, which provides posters, buttons, lapel stickers, magnets, balloons, and Voter Registration forms – all the basic materials to launch a VR drive. The kit also includes guidelines and ideas for nonpartisan, nonprofit VR and GOTV drives.
The interest in VR training and the toolkits has been outstanding. We hope that the level of interest in these trainings in future years will be as high; that the many groups we have trained to institutionalize voter registration will continue it in their day-to-day routines; and that the number of requests we receive for toolkits after November 2 will continue to increase.
This year’s election will determine our next president, and many of our other federal, state and local representatives, but every year voters determine who is going to be in their corner making state and local policies that affect them. Who we elect today often forms the “farm team” for tomorrow. The more our elected officials know and understand the issues important to the health and wealth of our communities today, the better they’ll be able to help our communities in the future.