Get Out and Vote!

November 2, 2009

All across the nation, voters will be heading to the polls tomorrow. Although it’s not an election to compare with last year’s epic Presidential campaign, there are important races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey and mayoral races in New York, Houston, Miami, and several other large cities. While it may not be the most important election in history, every election should be conducted vigorously. And nonprofit organizations should be central players in educating and organizing constituents to participate in elections.
As Robert Egger, President of the DC Central Kitchen and founder of the nonprofit political campaign V3 points out in his blog, “There are 100 million people who work for, volunteer at or contribute to nonprofits in America. If WE can gather around larger issues, just as Boards of Trade have over the last decades, and then act in unity during elections, then we can get candidates to move beyond slogans and force them to fully develop and articulate detailed plans for how they would partner with us to lead communities forward.”
Unfortunately, not everybody agrees.
The recent ACORN video scandal was ostensibly about the outrage of ACORN employees' counseling a pimp and a prostitute on how to break laws against child prostitution and tax evasion. Indeed, the video sting did reveal an organization with sometimes scandalously low standards. But the real reason ACORN was targeted stems from the fact that the organization has been one of the most aggressive and effective nonprofits in registering poor people and minorities to vote. Throughout the election campaign of 2008, ACORN was under fire for its efforts to increase voter registration in the country’s poorest communities.

Whatever you believe about the ACORN employees caught in the video sting—innocent incompetents or villainous fools—the work of registering disenfranchised voters is undeniably important. And it is incumbent upon all nonprofits to do their part in growing civic participation through electoral education efforts. Fortunately, other organizations are also stepping up their efforts to promote voter education efforts. Chief among them, the Nonprofit Voter Engagement Network has established a large and growing network to encourage nonprofits of all types to move their constituents to the polls. Working with state associations of nonprofits, NVEN has helped thousands of nonprofits educate hundreds of thousands of their donors, members, volunteers, clients, and employees about the importance of voting.

One of the obstacles for nonprofits who might wish to do more electoral education, beyond the fear of being targeted for attacks like those experienced by ACORN, is the somewhat fuzzy rules governing nonprofit electoral activities. That’s why OMB Watch and several other nonprofit advocacy organizations are leading an effort to pressure the Internal Revenue Service to clarify its rules governing electoral work by nonprofits, which will hopefully encourage even more nonprofits to engage in electoral activities.
Together, ACORN and NVEN and many other nonprofit voter education programs helped to make the 2008 election's turnout the highest in four decades. Still, at 62 percent of all eligible voters, America’s electoral turnout lags far behind many established democracies. We still have far to go.
Tomorrow: No Solicitation, Please.
 

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