October 01, 2012

Nonprofit Drive Helps Hundreds of Thousands Register to Vote

New Era Colorado Foundation

Hundreds of thousands of Americans nationwide registered to vote last Tuesday after an unprecedented registration-drive organized by hundreds of nonprofit groups and powered by over 6,000 volunteers.

The idea for such a day crystallized just a year ago when a small handful of leaders were looking at figures from the 2008 presidential elections and learned that 6 million Americans didn’t vote because they didn’t know how to register or missed a deadline.

Partisan campaigns will spend more than $10-billion this year, largely for advertising campaigns that are little more than shouting matches to tear down candidates. Only a tiny percentage of that amount, around 1 percent or less, will be spent on nonpartisan efforts.

We reached out to hundreds of nonprofit groups and asked them to come together to promote the idea that every eligible American should be registered to vote. Our hope was that nonpartisan nonprofits could be the catalyst to bring together businesses, organizations, volunteers, artists, and election administrators online, offline, and over the airwaves to make registering to vote a celebration.

Along the way, we experimented with new models of collaboration, managed to avoid partisan squabbles, and found a cause that got approving tweets from both Glenn Beck and President Obama.

Among the efforts spurred by the nonprofit movement:

• Google, the search giant, collaborated with TurboVote, a startup that aims to make voting as easy as ordering DVD’s from Netflix, to promote voter registration on YouTube and on its own search-engine home page. When people did a Google search, for example, a link flashed online telling them how to register to vote in their state and when the deadlines were.

• Hundreds of local Leagues of Women Voters deployed to libraries, grocery stores, and other high-traffic locations, registering over 3,000 Americans across the country.

• The New York Public Interest Research Group sent legions of volunteers into New York’s subway system, some for as long as 11 hours. Statewide, they helped nearly 6,000 New Yorkers register.

• Secretaries of State, Republicans and Democrats, joined faith groups, community organizations, and schools to promote voter registration in Arizona, California, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Vermont.

• The National Congress of American Indians joined with the voter-registration powerhouse Rock the Vote to engage the first Americans in record numbers.

• More than 200 artists worked with HeadCount, an organization that registers voters at concerts, to promote voter signups through social media, driving tens of thousands of online registrations.

This effort worked partly because, like our elections themselves, it was highly decentralized.

Once we settled on the idea that we’d promote registration on the last Tuesday in September, nonprofits, individuals, and businesses developed their own ways to promote signups and join forces with other groups that could help. Meanwhile, a handful of organizations, including Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance Education Fund, the Bus Federation Civic Fund, where I work, Fair Elections Legal Network, the League of Women Voters, Nonprofit Vote, and Voto Latino, built support for the effort behind the scenes, developed a shared Web site, training materials, and legal guides.

Watching hundreds of thousands of Americans from all walks of life come together to celebrate what binds us together as a country was a reminder of the power of organizing, the power of philanthropy, and the power of an idea. But the real estimate of whether we made a difference will come on November 6, when we hope to improve the number of Americans who prove that voting matters.

Matt Singer is executive director of the Bus Federation Civic Fund and one of the co-founders of National Voter Registration Day.