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Not-for-Profit, But Pro-Democracy: How NGOs Boost Voter Turnout

J. Mijin Cha

A new report from NonProfit VOTE shows the incredible impact non-profit service providers can have on voter registration and turnout. Under a program called Track the Vote, Nonprofit VOTE tracked 33,741 individuals who had registered to vote or signed a pledge to vote at 94 nonprofit service providers. The nonprofits included community health centers, family service agencies, multi-service organizations, and community development groups across seven states. The findings are significant:

  • Voters contacted by nonprofits voted at a higher rate than the average turnout for all registered voters. Voter turnout among the clients and constituents that nonprofits registered or collected pledges from (“nonprofit voters”) was 74%, six points above the 68% turnout rate for all registered voters.
  • Nonprofit voters outperformed their counterparts across all demographic groups studied.
  • Nonprofits were particularly effective at increasing voter turnout among groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the electoral process.
    • Voter turnout of nonprofit voters compared to all registered voters was 18 points higher for Latino voters (72% vs. 54%), 15 points higher for voters under 30 years old (68% vs. 53%), and 15 points higher for voters with household incomes under $25,000 (68% vs. 53%).
  • Disparities in voter turnout by age, income, race and ethnicity narrowed or disappeared among voters engaged by the nonprofits compared to the large turnout gaps evident among registered voters in Census data and the data in this report.
  • The intervention by nonprofits had its biggest impact on turnout among least-likely voters – those that campaigns typically disregard based on low “voter propensity scores” assigned before the election to predict their likelihood to vote. The nonprofit voters with the lowest voting propensity scores were three times more likely to vote than their low-propensity counterparts among all registered voters

This study shows that with targeted outreach and follow up communities with historically low rates of voter participation can be brought into the electoral process. Nonprofit service providers may be particularly well suited to voter outreach because of the level of contact and interaction they have with clients and communities. These nonprofits also disproportionately reach low-income communities and communities of color with historically lower voter participation rates. Research has shown that personal contact from a person or known entity is the most powerful factor in voter mobilization, especially for those that are less likely to participate and vote.

The need to bring more low-income voters and voters of color into our electoral system has long been recognized. Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act requires that public assistance agencies provide voter registration services with the express intent of helping low-income eligible voters register to vote. After a period of poor enforcement, Demos and our partners have worked with states through cooperative work and litigation to increase compliance with Section 7. As a result, since 2007 nearly 2 million eligible voters have registered at public assistance offices.

The reason voter participation rates among low-income populations must be increased is that our elections and policy priorities are currently dominated by wealthy and affluent interests. As we highlighted in Stacked Deck, “the preferences of people in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent impact on the behavior of their elected officials.” Increasing voter participation among low-income communities and communities of color brings more voices into our political system and will begin to put pressure on elected officials—who need votes to get re-elected-- to listen to interests other than those of the affluent.

Increasing voter participation among low-income populations and communities of color is good for our politics and good for our democracy.