Voter Registration for Arts Organizations

Marcy Koukhab Kaplan of California Participation Project

 

Leading the Charge: Voter Registration for Nonprofits

Marcy Koukhab Kaplan of the California Participation Project blogs on how nonprofits can promote civic engagement in their communities

 

 

Voter turnout in the City of Los Angeles Municipal Elections on March 8, 2011 was 12.97%.  In the 2010 National Elections turnout in LA County was 53.77%.  Those numbers are alarmingly low, and by no means represent all the rich cultures and diverse opinions of our great city and county.  

Why are turnout numbers so low?  Confusing ballot measures, a lack of connection to candidates, or feeling like your vote doesn’t count are common reasons, but often people don’t vote simply because they didn’t register in time, didn’t know where their polling place was or didn’t even know it was election day.

That’s where nonprofits come in.

With our inherent civic assets, nonprofits can help reduce barriers to voting and turn underrepresented populations into active, engaged voters and empower communities to make real, structural change on a local and regional level.  Nonprofits can help their communities understand how public policy impacts them and the arts community on a daily basis. Increasing civic participation has a ripple effect in a community as a whole, strengthening ties among neighbors, creating shared vision in a community, and increasing a sense of pride. 

Voter registration is one step to help increase voter turnout in LA County.  Nonprofits may think voter registration efforts are too time consuming or even not permissible.  When doing voter registration or any voter participation activities, nonprofits must remember to remain nonpartisan. That means nonprofits cannot support or oppose candidates, give resources to candidates, tell people which candidate to vote for, or what party to support or register under. However, there are still a ton of permissible activities that nonprofits can engage in. Need guidance?  The organization I work for, California Participation Project, makes it easy for nonprofits to navigate the election process by helping nonprofits integrate voter services into their ongoing work.

Why should nonprofits participate in voter registration?  Surveys in 2008 by the American National Election Studies show that the majority of voters are missed by traditional campaign canvassing (58% of voters are not contacted at home or by phone), especially younger and lower income populations and communities of color.  Nonprofits can help fill this voter contact gap and benefit from using a range of personal contact methods, such as talking to people at their organizations and in community settings, to achieve a sustainable impact in mobilizing and engaging a broader electorate.

According to the Otis Report on the Creative Economy of the Los Angeles Region, there are 235 arts nonprofits in LA County that likely reach tens of thousands of people annually (43% performing arts organizations, 30% museums, 27% arts education).  Through these regular interactions at after-school art centers, local theaters, museums and more, nonprofit staff build relationships with the communities they serve and provide unique opportunities to spur conversations, art projects, performances, and exhibits to highlight upcoming elections and their impacts.  

The strongest finding of voter mobilization research is that people are more likely to participate when they are personally contacted by someone they know – like the staff of a nonprofit they visit regularly.    

To register and to vote in California, you must be:

  • A U.S. citizen
  • A resident of California
  • At least 18 years old by the next election
  • Not serving time for a felony or still on parole for a felony
  • Not declared to be mentally incompetent by a court

Here are some easy steps any nonprofit can take to increase voter registration and participation among the communities you serve:

  • Know the Facts: In California the deadline to register to vote is always 15 days before an election. Almost all nonprofits can do voter registration on site, yet some are limited if they receive specific federal funding (click for more information on those limitations). If your nonprofit collects voter registration forms, make sure to return them 72 hours from when they were filled out. Three important things to note when filling out registration forms: people can decide whether they want to vote by mail, request election materials in another language besides English, and do not need a home to register to vote (they simply put cross-streets on the form). 
  • Decide your Approach and Make a Plan: Nonprofits vary in size and capacity and so should their voter registration efforts. There are a variety of voter registration activities that your nonprofit can do depending on staff time and how you reach the people you serve. To start out, your nonprofit might want to focus on publicizing and promoting voter registration deadlines and how-to’s, at your organization, on your website or in your newsletter.  Or take it a step further and do voter registration on-site at your organization or at upcoming community events.
  • Get voter registration forms: Contact Arts for LA at associate@artsforla.org to get voter registration forms for your nonprofit so they can help you track how many people you register to vote. Or visit lavote.net, the LA County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk website, to get additional information or help people register to vote online (just remember to print out the form and mail it in).
  • Start with your staff: Arts nonprofits in LA County employ somewhere between 5,900 and 8,400 staff.  Some nonprofits may be surprised that all of their staff aren’t registered to vote or may not vote regularly. Staff should also be prepared to answer basic election questions, such as where someone may go to get additional information or find a polling place.
  • Visit the California Participation Project (CAParticipates.org) for voter registration fact sheets, activities and resources. Check out our voter registration page, listen to a webinar hosted by our national partner Nonprofit VOTE on voter registration, or post a CPP web badge on your website to link to nonpartisan voter engagement resources.

 

Most importantly – encourage your communities to vote!  While voter registration is a core component, it’s just the first step towards increased civic engagement in your community. Any successful plan will help your community make informed decisions in upcoming elections, help eliminate barriers to voting like not knowing where a polling place is, and create a habit in your community for sustainable voter participation.  

 

Marcy Koukhab Kaplan is the Project Director for the California Participation Project.