Written by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld
In the wake of Tuesday’s elections, I was left wondering how many nonprofits had registered and turned out voters.
This year’s midterms will probably be remembered for the apparent contradiction of progressive ballot measures winning alongside conservative legislators. But this election should be remembered for the sad fact that voter turnout was far lower than our already low expectations. And what’s frustrating is that we know that nonprofits can reach nonvoters.
Only 34% of eligible voters are estimated to have turned out. And looking at who actually voted, as much as who didn’t, it’s clear that many of our communities weren’t represented on Election Day. Compared to the Whiter, older and wealthier electorate that usually turns out for midterm elections, nonprofit organizations reach people who are more diverse, younger and have lower incomes.
According a study by Nonprofit VOTE, service providers can and do boost turnout, especially among low-income, Latino, African American, and younger voters. Last year, BMP highlighted Crisis Assistance Ministry – an organization helping people gain financial stability that participated in Nonprofit VOTE’s Track the Vote program – in our 5% Shifts series of reports. I thought “are you registered to vote” was one of the easiest questions a caseworker could ask a new client during the intake process, especially compared to the rigmarole of applying for financial assistance and other support programs. In their first year registering people, roughly four-fifths of the first-time voters Crisis Assistance Ministry registered actually turned out!
So if we know it works, why aren’t more nonprofit service groups helping their clients and constituents get registered and out to the polls?
Part of the reason could be that many nonprofit staff aren’t voting themselves. California’s Nonprofit Association created a “Vote with Your Mission” campaign to inspire nonprofit staff, boards and volunteers to vote. Earlier this fall, BMP and the Center for Nonprofit Excellence brought Kim Klein to New Mexico to talk about the campaign in California and the potential for getting more nonprofits in the state on board with helping their clients and staff vote.
Our organizations have an interest in getting people out to vote just so our democracy lives up to the ideal of our legislators being representative of our nation. But far too many nonprofits are fearful of registering voters or even just reminding their constituents to turn out on Election Day. I hope this election is a wake-up call for nonprofits to take our commitment seriously to help people have real voice and power in the decisions affecting their lives.