|Learn how to register voters and conduct Get Out the Vote campaigns, to build resident involvement, and strengthen your organization and the democratic process.
Why register voters?
Who can register voters?
How to register voters
How to convince people to register to vote
Increasing voter turnout
Appendix: What a 501(c)(3) can and can't do
Why register voters?
- Helps build a strong democracy.
- Influences politicians' decisions, and thus it increases your ability to influence policies. For example, if your collaborative is interested in improving the rights of migrant farm workers, your position with state legislators will be stronger if many or the majority of the farm workers in your area are registered and poised to vote in the upcoming election.
- Helps people who have traditionally been marginalized impact systems and processes, giving them a stronger voice in government.
Who can register voters?
Where to Register: Understanding the "Motor Voter" LawIn 1991, the National Voter Registration Reform Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate. This bill, which is commonly known as the "Motor Voter" bill, was designed to make it easier for people to register to vote. It was passed in 1993, and was fully implemented in 1995. The bill states that driver's license offices and other public assistance agencies must offer voter registration as a regular part of their services. It also creates a standardized mail-in registration form and requires states to allow registration by mail. According to law, certain places are required to offer nonpartisan registration. These places include:
- Motor Vehicle Bureaus
- All public assistance offices
- Offices that provide state-funded programs primarily for persons with disabilities
- Military recruiting offices
- Any agency that provides services to disabled persons in their homes must also provide voter registration services in those homesEach state may also decide to designate other agencies and offices to offer voter registration. These places include:
- Public libraries
- Public schools
- Government revenue offices
- City or county clerk's offices
- Unemployment compensation offices
- Federal and nongovernmental offices (with their agreement)At agencies where voter registration is required by the new law, staff or volunteers must provide the following services:
- Distribute voter registration application forms when they distribute their own forms. In public assistance offices, the form also must state that the applicant 's decision will not affect the amount of assistance provided.
- Offer help in filling out the forms
- Accept completed forms from clients, and take or send the completed forms to the elections office
- The agency must offer its clients the mail voter registration form (or a combined form for the agency's services and voter registration) with each service provided.Finally, people who provide voter registration services at these agencies:
- Can't display a political or party affiliation
- May not try to influence an applicant's choice of party affiliation, discourage an applicant from registering, or make any statement that registration will affect their ability to receive other services or benefits
How to register voters
Example: The Literacy Project in Greenfield, MA simply registered students when they signed up. Staff and volunteers discussed students' objections and insecurities with them, helped them fill out the registration post card, and students became voters. And, almost universally, once they were registered they did vote, and became excited about elections and referendum questions. It became an ongoing part of the program.The experience was often used as a learning tool. A group of students would go to the Town Clerk's office to register, and get the spiel about voting from the (well -prepped) Town Clerk, who was generally only too happy to be part of all this. Students would also find out what else went on at Town Hall and watch as their names were recorded as voters.
In order to make registering voters a part of your organization's work, follow these steps:
Appoint someone to coordinate activities. If you are working from an agency, this person can develop the best method for routinely offering voter registration. For example, it might be offered in the intake process, at your reception desk, or during orientation sessions. This person should register clients -- but he or she can make sure that your own staff and volunteers are registered as well. He or she might also develop publicity for what you are doing
Set voter registration goals. This will help you determine if your program has been a success. Some of the things you might want to set goals for include:
- How many people you want to register.
- Who you want to focus on reaching. Do you want to focus on certain neighborhoods, or a certain part of town that traditionally has very fewer voters?
Do your research: Find out local registration rules. Registration rules vary from state to state. For example, how long before an election you need to register varies from state to state. Also, in some places you can register at 17 if you will be 18 for the election, but that's not always true. Finally, some states require voters to declare a party affiliation.
Obtain forms for clients to fill out. Most states will accept the national form (available from the Federal Election Commission); or you can contact your state or local elections office to receive registration forms or cards.
Using the National FormsWhile state voter registration forms may be obtained locally, your organization can also use the national form. In most states (see below), the state and national form can be used interchangeably. If your organization is going to use the national form, here is some basic information about it:
- An organization may mail completed Voter Registration Applications to the appropriate election office(s) individually or in a bundle. (If you register a lot of people, this can really help on postage.)
- If you work with people for whom English is not their first language, it may be easier for them to fill out the form in their native tongue. The national form has been translated into: Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Tagalog (Filipino).The translated forms are available as a matter of course in some areas, or you may receive them from the Federal Election Commission's Office of Election Administration.
- The national form can be photocopied in some states. According to the Federal Election Commission, 23 states currently accept a photocopied voter registration application. They are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.States that don't accept photocopies will only take the National Mail Voter Registration application when it has been printed according to Federal Election Commission regulations.
- While you can't register online, you can download and print the form from the Federal Election Commission and use it to register to vote if your state accepts photocopied forms.
- You can register to vote in almost any state (and also in the District of Columbia) using the national form. However, there are four exceptions:
- North Dakota does not have voter registration.
- Wyoming does not accept the national form.
- Mississippi will only accept the form to register individuals for Federal elections.
- New Hampshire town and city clerks will accept the national form only as a request for their own mail-in voter registration form
Publicize the fact that you are registering voters. There are many ways to do this, including:
- Ask clients if they want to register today. You might ask when they first come in, make it part of your intake/outtake interview, or add it to your organization's forms.
- Develop posters or flyers encouraging people to register, and hang them in your office or even throughout town.
- Develop and use a phone bank to get the word out. In a phone bank, your organization gets a group of people together (often staff or volunteers) to call a large number of people (perhaps clients of your organization) to get certain information across. A phone bank has many different uses; it can also be used to poll voters on their preferences or to remind them to vote.
- Send a mass email alert asking people to register. A caution, here: this will limit your potential audience to people with easy access to the internet.
- Go door-to-door (with registration cards) asking people to register. This can be time intensive, but this option may be particularly useful if you want to concentrate your efforts in a certain neighborhood.
- Give incentives to people who register. This might be especially useful for a voter registration drive. Small things such as pens, buttons, etc., can be very helpful in convincing people to take the time to do it.
- Get the word out about voter registration in your organization's newsletter and also in the newsletters of groups or faith communities with whom you partner.
Be clear that your registration policies are nonpartisan. If your organization is a 501(c)(3) organization, there are certain regulations you will have to comply with. One of these is that you must be sure that a sign is posted or written notice is permanently displayed that states: "Our voter registration services are available without regard to the voter's political preference."
Extend help. Offer to assist people in completing their registration forms, making sure the form is completed correctly, and getting it in the mail (or taking the completed forms where they are going).
Record the names and phone numbers of people who register. There are two major advantages of doing this. First, you can contact people in a few weeks to make sure they have heard from the state election office, and follow up if they haven't. And second, this will help when it comes time for Get-Out-The-Vote efforts. You can contact the people who have registered to vote by phone or with a post card, for example, to remind them to go vote in the upcoming election and make sure they have transportation.
Holding a Voter Registration DriveMost of this section is meant for organizations that want to make voter registration a part of their group's normal practices. However, there will be times when a group wants to run a drive to register the maximum number of people in a short period. For these campaigns, most of the steps above will still apply. Additionally, however, you will need to do the following:
- Choose a day or days to hold the registration drive. Be sure to pick a date that meets the registration deadline for your area. This varies from state to state. Some states only require voters to register about 10 days before the election, but most require closer to 30.
- Decide where and how to reach your audience. You might want to coordinate your drive with an event where you will be able to reach a large number of people from your target audience. For example, Rock the Vote, a nationwide campaign to encourage voting among young adults, did a lot of their registration work at huge rock concerts. A smaller example is a group working for better health care for Hispanics might conduct their registration drive at an annual fiesta. Arts festivals, sports events, and shopping malls are three other places you might use to conduct your drive.
- Recruit volunteers to help with the drive, and make sure they have all of the information and understanding they need to be effective. You might have an orientation meeting with all of the volunteers, or contact them each by phone to review questions about the registration process and to confirm logistics. That is, be sure they are clear about when you need them, where, for how long, and what they will need to bring.You might also give them a "cheat sheet" with answers to commonly asked questions about voter registration. (See Tool #1). Also, be sure people know what to do if they get questions they can't answer. For example, should they refer people to your office? Will someone be nearby who might be able to help them? Should they offer to find out and call the questioner with the answer?To recruit volunteers, you might consider asking people who have recently registered. Oftentimes, the best convincers are people who have recently voted for the first time. They're still excited about it, and are very familiar with the excuses people give for not registering.
- Remind volunteers that the effort is nonpartisan. Remember, if your organization is a designated voter registration agency under the "Motor Voter" bill or a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, volunteers may not advocate particular candidates or suggest how a person should vote. If you can swing it, it's a good idea to have volunteers from more than one political party taking part in the drive.
Increasing voter turnout
Make it easy for people to register and vote. This is the first thing you will want to do. Here, you are taking away potential barriers to registration and voting. Go where people are, so that they can register without disrupting their normal schedule.
Make voting more accessible.
Many people can’t make it to the polls because of accessibility challenges. Fortunately, some states have systems in place to allow more people to vote. All states must send absentee ballots to military and overseas voters for federal elections, but many states have different absentee ballot policies for domestic voters. Thirty-four states (and Washington D.C.) permit voting by absentee ballot for any voter. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington mail an absentee ballot to all registered voters in their state (called “all-mail elections”). The remaining sixteen states permit residents to vote using an absentee ballot but require an “excuse” for why voting in-person is not possible. Depending on your state, these “excuses” may need to be notarized. Notary services are available for free at a variety of locations, like independent shipping stores. Some libraries, banks, and court houses will also offer free notary services.
Some states offer early voting where voters can cast their ballot before election day. Not all polling stations in early voting states are open before election day, but voters can go to any polling location to cast their ballot during the early voting period. Early voting polling places are often open later hours, on the weekends, and have shorter lines. These policies help increase voting access for many voters who cannot stand in long lines due to ability or time constraints, take time off work on election day to cast their ballot, or work during typical business hours. Some early voting polling places have a drive-through option for disabled or elderly voters where polling center staff bring the voter’s ballot to their car. When registering and following-up with voters, explain to them the policies in your state (e.g., early voting rules) that can make voting more accessible and convenient. Also, make sure to cast your own ballot for policies that increase voting accessibility in your state.
How can your organization best deal with these potential barriers?
Find out why people aren't registered now. If you want people to change their habits, the first thing you need to do is understand where they are at now--what is causing them to behave as they do. Otherwise, you probably won't get anywhere.
For example, a volunteer might talk earnestly with someone for twenty minutes about the importance of voting, civic responsibility, etc. The listener might nod politely, agree with the volunteer, not register, and move on. He might be completely in agreement about civic responsibility, but knows he won't have reliable transportation to the polls on election day.
Some of the most commonly given reasons and possible responses include:
- My vote doesn't make a difference - Your vote can make a huge difference, especially in local elections. There have been many times when an election has been determined by just one or a very few votes.
- I'm too lazy/I've never gotten around to it - Now's your chance--it will only take a couple of minutes!
- I don't know how or where to register - You can register right here, right now, and we'll help you do it.
- I don't want to be called for jury duty - Voter registration listings are not the only ones used to select potential jurors. They're mostly used together with driver's licenses lists and merged to avoid name repetitions. We've never heard of anyone not wanting to drive because it might lead to jury duty!
- I'm disgusted with (or just don't care about) politics - Then change it! You have the power to take a situation you hate and make it much better. The decisions politicians make affect you directly every day. For example (use a major issue in your area). Wouldn't you like to have some control over that?
- I don't have transportation to the polling places - We will be happy to provide transportation for you on election day if you don't have any.
- I don't know what's going on/I don't know enough to make an educated decision - We'll help you. We'd be happy to give you summaries of the candidate's views on major issues. If you get the local newspaper, they usually provide a lot of information on this, too.
- I didn't know I could vote - If you are a U.S. citizen, over the age of 18, and have not been convicted of a felony (applicable in some states, not all), you definitely can! (And we hope you will, too!)
- I don't pay any attention to politics; it has nothing to do with me - The decisions politicians make affect you directly every day. For example (use a major issue in your area). Wouldn't you like to have some control over that?
- Send a postcard the week before the election reminding people to vote and listing polling times and places.
- Set up a telephone tree several days before the election, reminding people to vote.
- Organize rides to the polls for people who may need assistance in getting to a polling place. Be sure to publicize the fact that these rides are available. If you send a postcard or do a telephone tree, for example, be sure to include this information.
- Start a "Kids Voting" campaign (see Example #2)--in many communities, the number of voters goes up significantly when these are implemented. Plus, you are helping to increase awareness and understanding among future voters, too!
- Hold a mock vote to familiarize people with the process.
- Conduct issues forums, either with candidates, or with their position papers, using people on both sides of the issues, or representing several different views.
- Develop public service announcements (PSA's) for local television or radio stations encouraging people to vote. These might feature first-time voters who are excited and energized about the process, or situations where one vote made the difference in an election.
Appendix: What a 501(c)(3) can and can't do
- Conduct nonpartisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote ("GOTV") efforts. (A C3 must follow the special standards of section 4945(f) if it is to be eligible for private foundation funds).
- Conduct nonpartisan "candidate forums" on issues of concern to its constituency. The forum must be open to all candidates, be run in a balanced way, and include a nonpartisan panel of questioners.
- Sell mailing lists to candidates, but only on the same terms as such lists are routinely sold to other customers. (The IRS takes the position that a C3's income from the sale or rental of mailing lists is subject to unrelated business income tax. However, the IRS has recently been unsuccessful pressing this claim in court. Several cases addressing this issue are currently in litigation.)
- Make substantive issue-oriented presentations to platform committees, campaign staffs, candidates, media, and the public.
- Take advantage of the increased attention that policy issues enjoy during an election period to focus public attention on the C3's issues and agenda.
- Circulate questionnaires to candidates if they cover a broad range of issues, the questions are unbiased, and the results are distributed only through the C3's routine channels.
- Conduct training on issues and organizational skills, so long as the training is genuinely nonpartisan.
- Continue the organization's normal lobbying activity during election periods, and report on its lobbying and substantive activities (including permitted activities listed above) in the usual way to the usual recipients of its publications.
- Report to its normal constituency, as part of continuing lobbying, on votes of all legislators (not just candidates) on issues of interest to the C3, and indicate whether they support its position.
- Allow its staff to participate as individuals in political campaigns, on their own time and not as representatives of the organization.
What it can't do:
- Give endorsements to candidates for office--either explicit or implicit.
- Make contributions to candidates or parties (including "in-kind" contributions, publicity, staff time, use of facilities or assets.)
- Set up, fund, or manage a PAC.
- Evaluate candidate positions (except in certain circumstances where the evaluation pertains to a candidate's position on pending legislation that is the subject of lobbying by the organization).
- Coordinate activities with a campaign.
What might be okay for a 501(C)(3) organization to do:
- Appearance of implied endorsement of candidates (or opposition to candidates).
- Concentration of activities during peak election periods or in geographical areas of special election interest.
- Communications with or distribution of materials beyond the C3's normal audience or focused on particular election districts.
- Coordination of a C3's activities with those organizations (C4s, PACs, campaigns) having explicit political aims.
Truth and Consequences:So what can happen if the IRS looks at your organization's work and decides you have violated the ban on political activity? There are some very stiff consequences that might occur. The IRS could:
- Revoke your organization's tax-exempt status.
- Charge your organization a 10% excise tax on each "political expenditure" it has made.
- Charge the nonprofit's managers (personally) a 2% excise tax on each "political expenditure" they agreed to knowingly and without reasonable cause.The bottom line here? Be careful. Understand what you are doing and how it might be perceived by the IRS. Talk to legal counsel, and try to keep your nose clean.
Fair Vote. Links to sites having to do with voting.
Federal Election Commission website. Includes federal voter registration form and information on registration for all states.
Health & Democracy Index This analysis compares 12 public health indicators and voter turnout to the restrictiveness of voting policies in each state.
Healthy Democracy Healthy People is a new nonpartisan initiative from major public health and civic engagement groups that supports public health professionals and policymakers who are working to advance civic participation and public health.
National Voter Registration Day is an article about getting others involved in registering to vote on the national voter registration day, September 25.
Project Vote Smart. Registration information for all 50 states and more.
Registering to Vote is an informational website provided by the United States government on how to become a registered voter.
Vote, and Get Others to Vote provides tips for registering others to vote, as well as how and where to register others.
Voter Registration: A How to Guide from RockTheVote.
Andreasen, A. (1995). Marketing social change: Changing behavior to promote health, social development, and the environment. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Center for Community Change. (1996). How and why to influence public policy: An action guide for community organizations [Special issue]. Community Change, 17.
Troyer, T., Lauber, A., Jr., & Cerny, M. (1998). Playing by the rules: Handbook on voter participation and education work for 501(c)(3) organizations. Washington, DC: Independent Sector.
This handbook can be ordered from Independent Sector. They are located at 1200 18th Street NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20036. Their publications department can also reached at 888-860-8118, or see their website.
Voting Information Center (VIC)
The DoD Voting Information Center, or "VIC," allows callers to hear messages, via an ordinary phone line, from incumbent U.S. Senators and Representatives, Governors, and Secretaries of State. In addition, 60 days prior to an election, messages from candidates for these offices are also available.
Callers have direct access through the VIC to their U.S. Senators and Representative, Governor, Secretary of State, chief election official, and Service or Department of State Voting Action Officers. VIC even has speech recognition technology on the system, so citizens can easily cruise through a series of voice commands to allow citizens to communicate with these individuals and become better informed citizens.
Voter's Research Hotline
1-888-VOTE SMART (1-888-868-3762)
Your own personal researcher can answer your questions instantly over the phone. Open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST, Monday through Friday, the Hotline has information on candidates and elected officials at the following levels:
- President and Vice President
- State Legislators
Information Available Includes:
- Voting Records
- Campaign Finance Data
- Performance Evaluations by Special Interest Groups
- Issue Stances
- Contact Information
- Status of Legislation
- Help Navigating the Vote Smart Web
- Voter Registration Information
- Request Free Publications
- What District You Live In
Staff will also do customized research for you at no charge.