So, Independence Day is tomorrow. Most of you are probably thinking about fireworks and cookouts and parades, right? And I’m thinking about…voters. Yes, voters, as in there’s no major election for another 16 months so why in the world would anyone be thinking about voting?
That’s precisely part of the problem, I think, with trying to register and mobilize marginalized voters; we tend not to think about it, or them, until immediately preceding an election, and so then what we’re engaged in is not really a strategy to elicit sustained civic participation but rather a race to get as many signatures on ‘the dotted line’ in as short a time as possible. I’ve done that kind of voter registration; it’s what donors tend to fund, what election cycles demand, and what nonprofit organizations, especially those of us working in sought-after ethnic communities, have learned to deliver. So, I’ve stood outside in 100+ degree heat and begged passersby at community festivals to please register to vote (“it just takes a minute”, as though it was something painful), been cursed at by people who saw me as a nuisance to be avoided (I often felt like the women who spray perfume at the department stores), and wracked my brain trying to think of anywhere where I could find potentially unregistered voters, to bulk up our numbers and ‘produce’ as many registrants as possible.
I’m not ready to conclude that that style of voter registration has no place in our democratic system or, indeed, in social service organizations’ interactions with it. I know that I registered some people who would not have registered otherwise, and I know that some of them even voted, and that’s undeniably a good thing. But I do think that, if we’re serious about making an impact on the political process and, much more importantly, about really connecting with our clients in a way that transforms how they think about our nation and their rights and responsibilities within it, then we have to rethink how we register voters, starting with seeing voter registration not as the mark of civic participation but as a rather limited and passive piece of what should be a much broader engagement.
This means, to begin, that we register voters, and talk about elections and their importance and ways to connect with elected officials year-round, not just in advance of an election. And our nation’s Independence Day, a celebration of the founding of the country upon principles that give us the right, today, to play a part in defining our democracy and choosing its leaders, seems like a good time to start. So if your organization is ready to go beyond the ironing board set up outside Spanish Mass (yes, I’ve been there), how can you begin to integrate a voter engagement strategy into your daily operations? And how might this way of approaching voter registration change not only your clients’ behavior come Election Day but also how they view your organization?
At a minimum, you should register every client on whom you conduct an intake. You’re already asking them for a ton of personal information, much more than what you would need for a voter registration form. Explain the requirements for registering (which means educating yourself on things like your state’s suffrage restoration law for felons) and encourage people to register. NEVER start by asking people if they’re registered; they’re embarrassed to say that they don’t know, and they’re afraid they’ll be hassled if they say no, so just ask them if you can register them.
Integrate voter registration into your agency’s programming–if you provide transitional housing, those folks will need change of address forms; if you conduct citizenship classes, those are potential new voters; if you work with youth, register all of them as they turn 18. At El Centro, Inc., I registered the parents at our childcare program when they came to drop off and pick up their kids–we usually tried to time it for the first few weeks of each term, to catch the new families. I also registered the participants in our job training classes, the new residents at our apartment complex (a voter registration form was part of the move-in packet), all of our citizenship class students as soon as they naturalized, and all of our new staff members at orientation. If you learn to look at your participants as civic actors, you’ll see all kinds of opportunities to engage them.
Talk about issues that matter to the people you serve, and connect those issues to the importance of civic participation. “You know, reforming our health care system is going to be a priority in Congress over the next few years. Since you’re uninsured, you need to make sure that you vote so that your elected officials pay attention to your concerns.”
Be prepared for all of the excuses you’ll hear about not voting, and take them seriously, but be ready to defuse them. There are many communities in this country whose votes have historically NOT counted, and there are many people with real reason to believe that their votes don’t matter. There is also no excuse for abandoning one’s civic birthright, and there is no doubt that powerful politicians who don’t care about our communities would love to see our folks stay home on Election Day. So don’t ignore their doubts, but don’t let it drop, either.
Include a Get-out-the-Vote campaign as part of your civic participation activities. Advocates sometimes forget that registering voters isn’t really worth anything, intrinsically. It only matters if people actually show up and vote, and they are much more likely to do that if they are part of an organized GOTV system (more on that to follow later this week).
Make voting a part of your relationship with your clients. People are more inclined to vote, or really to do anything, if they are asked to do so by someone they care about; while you shouldn’t tell people for whom they should vote, it is okay to tell people that it matters to you that they go vote. If they’re only doing it because they don’t want to let you down, in the beginning, they just might do it the next time for themselves.
Create a climate of civic participation at your organization, year-round. Celebrate when people become citizens or register to vote. Post signs that offer people the opportunity to register (in some states, including Missouri, voter registration laws have become more restrictive in recent years, so make sure you understand requirements for registrars before you get started). Sponsor candidate forums and debate-watch parties. Offer your staff members a few hours off on Election Day to vote or to volunteer. Use your agency newsletter, website, Facebook page, and other communications to encourage people to participate in the political process. Make it clear that voting is part of your organization’s culture.
Outside of the core political operatives, few people are thinking about voting today. The next election is in the distant future, and there are many challenges to face before then. But, because we care not only about the product of our democracy but also the process, we have to care about voting right now. We have to think about how we’re going to send the message to those with whom we work that we consider them not just clients but our equals in the political process, and we have to send them that message every single day.