Getting Out the Vote: Nonprofits step up to the plate

Abraham Epton

This article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy discusses the increasingly prominent role that nonprofit groups are playing in registering new voters (though it largely ignores the role played by 527 groups). The authors, Ben Gose and Stephen Greene, focus on organizations such as National Voice, a coalition of around 1,000 activist groups, many of whom normally focus on issues unrelated to voter turnout. Gose and Greene report on a trend among nonprofits generally in which voter registration efforts are beginning to be seen as a part of their overall strategy. According to Harriet Barlow, adviser to the HKH Foundation, which usually focuses on the environment, civil liberties and the arms race, the foundation's trustees "concluded that the decline in civic participation, not just at the polls but across the whole spectrum of civic engagement, was entirely disadvantageous to advancing the issues the foundation exists to work on." This is significant because major national voter registration groups have been around for some time. For example, Rock the Vote (closely associated with, but not actually owned or founded by, MTV) has been around since 1990, registering young voters. But 2004 marks the first time that other nonprofits are getting significantly involved, increasing the possibility that new groups of voters can be targeted and registered (for example, New York's Partnership for the Homeless is trying to register their constituency, for the first time ever). Sadly, it seems the young are the only group more challenging to get to the polls than the homeless. According to the US Census, in 1998, 43.6% of citizens aged 18 to 24 were registered to vote (16% smaller than the next-lowest percentage, 25 to 34-year-olds), and only 18.5% of 18 to 24-year-olds voted at all. This suggests, as any political operative will confirm, that it's not enough to register people; they actually have to turn out on election day. And while the extra emphasis on registering young people, along with other traditionally disenfranchised groups, is a step in the right direction, it doesn't address the real problem: low turnout among registered voters, and a lack of new ideas on how to fix that.

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