Because of the frightening steps taken by some to exclude certain groups of Americans — minorities and the poor — from voting this election, it’s never been more essential for the leaders of the nation’s nonprofits to urge all Americans to go to the polls.
On November 8 voters across the country get to decide who fills 5,920 state legislative seats along with 93 statewide offices such as governor (12 to be elected), attorney general (10), and secretary of state (eight). Each officeholder can make a significant difference to nonprofits, as can the thousands of local city, county, judicial, school district, and special district officials up for election in November.
Those races are especially important to nonprofits, given the dysfunctional gridlock in Congress. The main policy action affecting the work of nonprofits and foundations will continue to be at the state and local levels. Nonetheless, the mainstream news media will continue to focus on the presidential election and races for 34 U.S. Senate slots and 435 Congressional seats.
What’s at stake for the future of our communities?
The people who fill those state and local seats will decide issues of importance to nonprofits and foundations, such as whether governmental bodies will continue:
- trying to take money away from nonprofit missions through new taxes, fees, and demands for payments for city services or limiting charitable-giving incentives at the state level (as happened in 2011, when Hawaiian nonprofits lost $60 million and Michigan nonprofits began losing $50 million annually in charitable giving to support their work).
- ignoring federal law directing state and local governments using federal funds to pay nonprofits for their overhead costs.
- cutting their own budgets in ways that do little if anything to curb the need for social services, thereby offloading their public responsibilities onto nonprofits and foundations to fill ever-widening gaps.
In the November elections, voters will also decide the fate of 153 statewide ballot measures and hundreds of local ballot questions across the country, many of which directly affect the work of nonprofits in helping individuals and communities.
That’s why we, as nonprofit leaders, need to step forward on a nonpartisan basis in the communities we serve to ensure that everyone who wants to vote gets to vote. You can help by signing your nonprofit up today to participate in National Voter Registration Day on September 27.
This special registration day is a nonpartisan effort by the National Association of Secretaries of State, Nonprofit VOTE, and hundreds of other organizations across America. (Full disclosure: My organization, the National Council of Nonprofits, will participate, and I serve on the national Leadership Council of Nonprofit VOTE.}
While many nonprofit leaders may think of this election as business as usual — and perhaps not essential to their day-to-day work — I hope they will focus on why this election is unusual and may define us as a people. What’s most disturbing about this election is that not everybody will be allowed to vote, especially because some organized efforts are underway to restrict voting by keeping ballots out of the hands of some Americans.
The very day after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted key aspects of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, state legislators began rushing to rewrite election laws to make it more difficult for certain Americans — generally, people of color and the poor — to exercise their constitutional rights to vote. That’s not just my take. That’s what judges have been declaring the last few weeks in blocking implementation of unconstitutional voting laws in Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina, North Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin, and elsewhere from taking effect.
Federal judges appointed by Democrats and Republicans alike have been exposing the ugly motivation behind many of these new voting laws: racial discrimination to gain a partisan advantage. A three-judge panel unanimously blocked enforcement of North Carolina’s new law "that restricted voting and registration in five different ways," deliberately "target[ing] African Americans with almost surgical precision" in an effort to suppress black turnout at the polls. A federal judge found that new voting laws in North Dakota impose "a disproportionately negative impact on Native American voting-eligible citizens." And the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a trial judge’s findings that a Texas voter-ID law "burdens Texans living in poverty" and had a discriminatory effect against African-American and Hispanic voters.
New voting restrictions in at least 15 states, and confusion caused by incomplete media coverage of litigation in at least 10 more, could scare people away from voting booths. So might attempts by various cities and counties to silence the voices of certain groups of Americans.
But if nonprofits that serve the excluded, the marginalized, and the most vulnerable take an affirmative, visible, and nonpartisan stand promoting voting by all, we can reassure people that their dignity, voice, and vote matter. Trust in nonprofits is high, and when our leaders take a stand, people follow our lead.
As nonpartisan nonprofits, we have the opportunity to stand up for the Constitution, which guarantees through the 15th Amendment that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
That promise can be realized — but only if we, collectively, stand up for the rights of our fellow Americans to have a say in their own future.
Tim Delaney is chief executive of the National Council of Nonprofits. Early in his legal career, he successfully blocked implementation of an Arizona law that would have stripped the ability to vote from more than 500,000 individuals, especially African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans.