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Why voter engagement and political advocacy is a nonprofit's responsibility

Ninety-six years ago, the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote. Even so, it would take another 44 years for African Americans to fully exercise their right to vote afforded them under the 15th amendment.

Our vote is our power. and that is why it is so often suppressed by those who aim to silence voices dissimilar to their own. Means used to suppress votes range from:

  • Draconian laws requiring voters to produce proof of citizenship or possess a current and valid state issued photo ID.

  • Elimination of Election Day registration and further restrictions on voter registration drives.

  • Limitations on early and absentee voting periods.

  • Making the restoration of voting rights difficult for those who have a past criminal conviction.

Today, 34 states have voter ID laws and 15 states require photo ID. You may question why this is an issue as most people have IDs; you need one to drive, buy alcohol, and fly. Yet the NOW Foundation reports that an estimated 11% of eligible voters do not have a government issued ID and nationally, 25% of black voters do not have an ID. Furthermore, the expense of a photo ID may limit access for many. While a photo ID may be free in some states, accessing the documents required to get one costs money and time, thus limiting access to voting rights for rural, elderly, disabled, and individuals working low-wage jobs.

Texas is among 8 states with the strictest ID laws. While the state maintains that it’s easy to get a photo ID to present at the polls, the district court found that approximately 600,000 eligible voters don’t have one of the IDs required to cast a ballot. In a state that does not have a DMV in one third of its counties and where 15% of Hispanic voters in Texas live in a county without a DMV, it’s clear why the courts are forcing Texas to allow people without the required ID to show some form of identification and sign an affidavit to their identity.

5 polling booths with red white and blue wall bunting

That’s why Planned Parenthood’s recent announcement that it will start a non-partisan effort to register voters at its health centers, college campuses, at other community health locations, and online is so important. They have the capacity to reach young, low-income, people of color who are disproportionately affected by voter suppression laws. In an election year that is fraught with rhetoric that threatens to limit access to basic healthcare for undocumented immigrants, Medicaid recipients, and those insured by Obamacare, as well as criminalize women who seek legal reproductive health services, it’s important that we elect officials who will keep the country’s best interests in mind.

Nonprofits often shy away from advocacy efforts as partisan activities can get their 501(c)(3) status revoked. However, nonpartisan efforts are permissible including:

  • Conducting or promoting voter registration

  • Educating voters on the voting process

  • Distributing sample ballots, candidate questionnaires, or voter guides

  • Encouraging and reminding people to vote

  • Hosting a candidate forum

  • Educating the candidates on your issues

  • Promoting issue advocacy during an election

Nonprofit VOTE reports that there are more than one million registered 501(c)(3) organizations employing 13.5 million people, working with 61 million volunteers, and serving millions more. It’s no wonder that nonprofits have incredible access to reach and connect with communities at a grassroots level, many of whom are underrepresented in the political process. Nonprofits should not be afraid to wield non-partisan advocacy as one of the tools that enable them to move their missions forward and serve their constituencies to the best of their ability.

If we are to call ourselves a democracy, then we must ensure that a basic tenet of democracy is adhered to, that is the right to vote. It is all of our responsibility to ensure that every citizen has the opportunity to vote without restriction for the lawmakers who will shape our cities, states, and national laws.

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