Nonprofits Must Work to Protect Voters’ Rights

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August 8, 2012; Source: Bloomberg News

To the extent that nonprofits really believe in small “d” democracy, whatever tatters and shreds of it might still be left, it should be incumbent on nonprofits to turn on the afterburners and get eligible citizens registered to vote—and then to make sure they get to the polls to exercise their franchise.

That goes double for four states where laws restricting voter eligibility have been passed by Republican-dominated legislatures with a not-difficult-to-discern agenda of defeating President Obama. The states are Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin, four states that appear regularly on the list of presidential “swing states.” A special target of these restrictive laws is early voting, including reducing the length of time states will keep designated polling places open for early voting. According to Bloomberg, African American voters comprise a disproportionately high number of early voters. The Obama administration’s Department of Justice has taken action against some of these laws, investigating Ohio’s and Pennsylvania’s, and joining a lawsuit against Florida’s rollback on early voting.

In the face of some of these laws, some nonprofit groups chose to temporarily suspend voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, as they found reporting requirements onerous and didn’t want to risk noncompliance. In the case of the nonprofit League of Women Voters in Florida, voter registration efforts were stalled for roughly a year. Might that have been the unstated but welcome outcome of the legislators’ mucking around with voter eligibility standards?

While the motivations of the authors of the voter restriction laws might well be partisan, the notion of maximizing the ability of eligible voters to register and get to the polls, early or otherwise, isn’t partisan. It’s patriotic. Intrepid investigative reporter Greg Palast describes the lawmakers who are crafting these laws as “ballot bandits” and offers seven ways to beat them, which is well worth a read (among his seven suggestions, Palast advises voters not to mail in their ballot, not to cast a vote provisionally, and to vote early, “before the ballot bandits wake up”).

Palast’s upcoming book, Billionaires & Ballot Bandits, notes that in the last presidential election, “1,090,729 provisional ballots were cast and not counted, 1,389,231 ballots were ‘spoiled,’ not counted, [and] 526,420 absentee ballots were mailed in, but not counted.” It would seem that the nonprofit sector has its work cut out for it to protect the most important part of the democratic process available to citizens: the right to vote.—Rick Cohen

  • Alex Walker

    Great post with which we at the Alliance for Justice Bolder Advocacy initiative fully agree. To encourage nonprofits to get involved in voter engagement, we have published resources describing how nonprofits can fight back against efforts to suppress the vote:

    Election Protection for Nonprofits
    Advocates Respond to Voter ID Laws

    Nonprofits confused about registration rules can check our info for their state here:

  • rick cohen

    Thanks, Alex. I hope NPQ readers go to the AFJ website to see these and other excellent materials on voting rights, nonprofit roles in voter registration campaigns, and moreover nonprofit and foundation latitudes and constraints regarding advocacy and lobbying. Thanks for the links.

  • Sweetfeet

    Does “Intrepid investigative reporter Greg Palast” report how many voters actually are not qualified to vote? It seems as essential a question as any other.
    You do realize don’t you, that ballots cast by unqualified voters, such as illegal aliens (yes, from any country) dilute those cast by qualified American voters? Or is it not important that our votes count as fully as they actually should?
    The “armed & dangerous junta” Palast mentions may very well take your country in a far better direction than those elected by unqualified voters, and likely represents many who are among the sources of non-profits sustaining income.
    Someone needs to extract his head from the sand.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Sweetfeet: I’d love to have your answer to the question you posed: how many people who voted, say in the last presidential election, do you believe and have evidence to support as not being qualified to vote? There are good numbers from official federal sources about how many “qualified” voters or “eligible” voters are not registered to vote. Do you have the number of people who aren’t eligible but voting? While you and Palast might not share the same political outlook, your comment about the unqualified voters and the “sources of non-profits sustaining income” is a little confusing. thanks.

  • Con Graves

    In Australia voting in Federal, State and Local elections is compulsory and you are fined if you don’t. While it is sometimes onerous it has the advantage that it is truly democratic as people are not excluded. We also have a postal vote system where you can apply for a postal vote so that if you are unable to vote on the day you can register to vote that way and have your say in those that you want to run your electorate. Most of my US friends are incredulous at this but it seem that it this approach stops vote rigging and provides an opportunity to support peoples democratic obligations.