Tag Archives: elections

Can Nonprofits Increase Voting? Short Answer: Yes!

It’s an election year.

An important one.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one, too.

But it’s certainly not too early to think about precisely how we can engage in the civic participation/Get-Out-the-Vote/voter empowerment process, as nonprofit service providers.

So, in case you missed it, here’s a really inspiring report from Nonprofit Vote, with case studies about what different nonprofits did to increase voter participation, and what lessons they learned in the process.

A few highlights, just to tide you over until you get through the 73 pages:

  • Don’t forget to register your staff. Really. Don’t forget that.
  • If you want people to register to vote, ask them. Individually. Posters are not an invitation. Asking people if you can register them is an invitation. And it makes a difference.
  • You can register people beyond your walls, and getting out to register voters also means building your name recognition and community presence, too.
  • Figure out what you want to measure, and then measure it. Do you care most about the total number of registrants? Voter turnout among those you register? Increasing participation among a specific population? Set goals and then hold yourself accountable.
  • Invest in staff training. Now. Voter engagement doesn’t necessarily come naturally to nonprofit staff, so staff development is essential.
  • Get people to pledge to vote–if they’re already registered, if laws prevent you from registering them, if you just registered them and you want to make sure they vote. Of course it’s no guarantee, but it gets you their contact information, and it gets them to acknowledge–at least briefly–that it matters if they show up. Both are huge.
  • Use peer pressure, like in group sessions where the interest of just a few can prompt broad voter engagement.
  • Partner. Remember that you don’t need to know/do everything, and you absolutely can rely on your field to carry some of the weight here. There are organizations that specialize in civil rights law, and they can help you with complicated questions/concerns about voting eligibility and restrictions.
  • Don’t assume that clients will view electoral engagement as a ‘distraction’–some organizations found that there was tremendous interest in talking about the election and issues and their rights as voters. You may find yourselves having to bracket this work so that it doesn’t spill over into other programs, instead of it being seen as an intrusion.

I’d love to hear others’ reactions to these case studies, or, especially, your own lessons learned from your organization’s civic engagement work. What do we need to be doing in February to ensure that our clients’ voices are heard in August and November? What capacity and support do you need now to make that happen?

What will you do to make sure that we keep answering, “yes!” to the question: Can Nonprofits Increase Voting?

New hopes for the new year

These days, I run on academic time, which means that mid-December is, essentially, the end of the year.

I will have some posts next week before I take a holiday break, until the second week in January, to make cookies and wrap presents and volunteer and read and–I hope–spend some time in front of the fireplace reading juvenile fiction with some very special kiddos.

But, today, a sort-of tradition:

My hopes for the new year.

In the spirit of holiday giving, I hope you’ll share your hopes for the future, too. Good news on your horizon? Cherished dreams you’re clinging to? Promises of good things to come that you’re no longer keeping to yourself?

At the risk of sounding greedy, I want them all!

Here’s to a new year, a few weeks from now.

Together, let’s make it a great one.

What are you hoping for? What will you do to make those dreams come true?

It’s only 4 months until spring school board elections!

Yes, I know, a lot of people are still recovering from the 2012 Presidential election. People who watch television tell me that it’s really nice to be able to do so without relentless political advertisements.


I’m thinking about our local and school board elections, set for the beginning of April (just 4 months from now!), and about how, especially in these smaller races that don’t receive nearly the same media attention, the ways in which we communicate about the issues, and the candidates, and the importance of voting are even more critical.

And that got me thinking back to a study in the journal Nature (which always makes me think about the time my friend Tim had a paper published in Science, and told me that all the best journals have just one name, I guess kind of like Madonna?), about the impact of social media posts on people’s political activities and even their opinions. The big-time science-y types who get published in Nature did a study that included everyone who visited Facebook in the U.S., ages 18 and older, on Election Day 2010 (61 million adults). They found that political messages in a social context influenced not just users but also other friends who also saw them. Critically, the effect of the social transmission–the fact that the messages were delivered through a social network–mattered more than the content of the messages themselves. If we see those patterns hold up in future elections, you just may be saved some of those political television ads in the future.

For methodology types, here’s a little more detail on how it worked.

Most Facebook users that day saw a “social message”, encouraging them to vote. It gave them a link to local polling places, and clickable button that said “I voted”. They could see how many people had clicked the button on a counter, and which of their friends had done so. But the remaining 2 percent saw something different. Half of them saw everything the same except WITHOUT the pictures of their friends–the information, but without the ‘social’. The other half saw nothing. When they compared the three groups, in such a large sample size, the scientists found that the messages mobilized people to express their desire to vote by clicking the button, and the social ones even spurred some to vote. These effects rippled through the network, affecting not just friends, but friends of friends. (Best part alert): By linking the accounts to actual voting records, they estimated that tens of thousands of votes eventually cast during the election were generated by this single Facebook message. It was an increase of 0.39% in voting probability, just by seeing the social message. As the analysis of the study cited, “Facts only mattered when paired with social pressure.” Furthermore, when they crunched the ‘friends’ into more precise types–close friends, with whom Facebook users interact frequently, versus the more ‘regular’ connections with whom one might not have much (or any) face-to-face interaction, they found that the size of effects varied as one might expect. The more distant ‘friends’ influenced the odds that someone clicked the “I voted” button, but not the likelihood that a user investigated his/her polling place or went to vote.

Without the institutional subscription that I enjoy, you won’t be able to read the whole article, so here are the pretty cool points:

  • Nearly all the transmission occurred between ‘close friends’ who were more likely to have a face-to-face relationship, and the effects were strongest there. It makes sense–I may get annoyed when my neighbor or my cousin post political content that I don’t agree with, but I don’t/can’t walk away from them. And if someone I respect points me towards information of which I am skeptical, it makes me think twice.
  • The effects weren’t just on expression–what people posted themselves–but also on information-gathering (who goes to look for what information) and actual voter turnout. Those latter effects were more modest, but, still, with some of the razor-thin election margins we’ve seen recently, even small effects matter.
  • The messenger matters–we know that it’s not just the quality of one’s information, but also the trustworthiness and relational power of the person(s) delivering it.
  • Scale matters, A LOT. The messages themselves and the friends who shared their activity, collectively, accounted for about 0.14% of all the votes cast during the 2010 election. That’s more than 280,000 votes, from one Facebook message.
  • One of the coolest things, to me, about this study, is how ‘real’ it is. People didn’t know that they were part of an experiment. They were just doing what they do every day–spending some time on Facebook–and, in the process, shaping their own (and their friends’, and even their friends’ friends’) political behavior. The implications are significant.

And, again, this was for a mid-term congressional election that was, after all, a pretty big deal. Most people, arguably, knew it was happening. There were many other messages in the arena, about the same election.

What about those smaller elections, where, if we knew what our friends were doing and knew that they would know what we, in turn, were doing (or not), we could see, maybe a few dozen votes in an area that we normally wouldn’t, in elections with historically very poor turnout?

Maybe we need some experiments of our own, four months from now.

Elections in the rearview mirror, through a social work lens

Like most people, I still have a lot of jumbled-up thoughts about Election Day on Tuesday.

I mean, mainly there is some relief–I had a 6-year-old whose world would have been shattered if Ohio had gone for Obama. And I really, really like that six-year-old.

But I also have the conversations–in this space and in my classroom and with social work colleagues–reverberating in my head, about whether the fiscal cliff means that big cuts in important social programs are coming no matter what, and about whether spending an estimated $6 billion to end up with the same basic political balance of power is, really a good investment.

I wonder about the dangers of equating activism with casting a ballot, and how that constrains our vision of ourselves as civic beings.

And I worry, a lot, about this call for Americans to ‘come together’, since I think this election exposes that we have very, very different ideas about a vision of our country’s future.

What does compromise mean, when people’s views about who should lead us broke down, to a large extent, along demographic lines? What will it take for a President Obama to come to an agreement on tax policy with Speaker Boehner, and what does it mean if he can’t, on any terms that we as social workers would want to accept?

What does it mean, for our future–that of our profession, and the policies that govern us, and the people we dedicate our careers to serve–that about 50% of the country prefers very different policies in almost all of areas where social workers practice (health care, welfare, education) than the other 50%?

If no one has a ‘mandate’, how do we move forward? Can standing at an impasse be a strategy, to hold the line?

What does ‘having a voice’, as so many people talked about in my social media feeds yesterday, referring to their votes, look like on November 8, 2012, instead of the 6th? How do we make our votes just the beginning, instead of the culmination?

Instead of getting back to normal, now that the ads that TV watchers see are done, how do we dedicate ourselves to a civic life that could result in a coming together that looks more like progress and less like capitulation?

I have more unanswered questions than I did two days ago, I think. And they are of more profound variety than, say, “what will turnout look like in Cuyahoga County?”

Anyone want to share some answers?

Vote. Just Vote. Now.

There’s nothing to read here today.


Thank you.

Can a ‘good’ social worker vote for [fill in the blank]?

As you know, I don’t see any possibly defensible argument for social workers to not vote.

We signed a Code of Ethics that includes a requirement to “engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice.”

Voting seems like a pretty low threshold for living up to that obligation.

There’s no excuse for not showing up.

But what about FOR WHOM to vote?

Our Code of Ethics also includes mandates to:

  • “act to expand choice and opportunity for all people, with special regard for vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed, and exploited people and groups” AND
  • “promote conditions that encourage respect for cultural and social diversity within the United States and globally. Social workers should promote policies and practices that demonstrate respect for difference, support the expansion of cultural knowledge and resources, advocate for programs and institutions that demonstrate cultural competence, and promote policies that safeguard the rights of and confirm equity and social justice for all people” AND
  • “act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical disability.”

Do those strictures tell us for whom to vote?

Are certain candidates unacceptable, across the board, to social workers, because of the statements they make or the stances they espouse?

Or is our only obligation to engage in the process, using our own ethical lens to determine which party(ies), or which candidate, best lives up to our ethical ideals?

Can you be a “good” (read: ethical, embodying social work values) social worker and vote for a candidate who supports strict voter ID laws that many civil rights leaders believe will erode these constitutional rights? Or one who opposes equal marriage rights for GLBT couples? Or one who opposes equal pay policies for women?

I don’t believe that our Code of Ethics tells us precisely how to respond to all of the dilemmas that can come up in practice, or in policy.

We are professionals, bound to a Code, but we are not robots.

I believe that ethical social workers can have legitimate disagreements about the policies to best support families living in poverty, or end child hunger, or help people who are unemployed, or protect our natural environment.

But my question, as we approach this critical election, is whether there are some candidates, and some issues, that really should be beyond the pale for social workers, even if, in some instances, the Code of Ethics runs contrary to our own personal beliefs, or what would benefit us as private individuals.

I know what the answer is for me, and for how I interpret our Code and live as a social worker.

But, for you, as you look at our profession, what do you think? Can ‘good’ social workers vote for anyone on Tuesday, as long as they’re voting?

Or does our Code point the way?

You know plenty. Just vote

This fall, several of my students have (separately) voiced that they have stayed away from politics because they “didn’t feel informed enough” to get involved.

And, I mean, I guess I sort of get that, after my initial recoil.

Social workers have an ethical obligation to competence, after all, and it is hard to keep up with all of the different races, and the different candidates’ positions, and what the fact-checkers uncovered this week.

And, for all of the talk about one vote not really mattering, no one wants to wake up the next morning and realized you cast a ballot for THAT candidate, without really understanding the ramifications.

But, really?

You know plenty.

So just vote.

What I tell my students, and what we need to remember, is that our ethical obligation to engage in advocacy in pursuit of social justice means that we have no excuse for non-participation. It is essentially not an option.

So if we feel paralyzed by lack of information, we have to find some way over, around, under, or through that particular obstacle.

Some suggestions?

  • Recognize that failing to vote is, in essence, the same net effect as voting for the candidate you didn’t want to win. So you’re not exactly ‘off-the-hook’, in terms of not voting in ignorance, even if you don’t vote. You’re there, you’re eligible, and so you figure into the equation one way or another.
  • Remember that there’s no absolute standard for intellect or even political engagement for voting. If we hold ourselves to a higher standard, as a ‘cost of entry’ than the general polity, we’re self-selecting out of the political process. We’re not raising the bar universally.
  • Educate yourself. Forget trying to understand every issue or analyze every speech. Find some issues that matter to you, a lot, and use them as a guide. I don’t necessarily object to the ‘single-issue voter’, as long as you understand that that narrow a lens will, necessarily, lead you to support some candidates whose positions on a wide range of other issues run directly contrary to your interests. But, still, if what you really care about, more than anything, is public education, then just spend energy figuring out where the candidates stand on that.

Election day is next Tuesday. If you don’t already have your absentee ballot, make plans now to fit voting into your daily schedule.

Hopefully you’ll have to wait a while, because turnout will be high and lines long.

You can stand next to all of the other people, who don’t know every nuance of every race, either, but who are there to make their preferences felt.

Just like yours will be.

When you vote.