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Opinion

After the presidential debate: How to close the voting gap among low-income people

After last night's presidential debate, voter turnout is top of mind for the Mitt Romney and President Obama campaigns. But their concerns fail to address our democracy's fundamental challenge: how to increase voter registration among low-income citizens and communities of color.

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Moreover, even in states where no such laws have passed, such non-partisan voter registration campaigns face persistent resource shortages; there are not enough charitable dollars to support these efforts at sufficient scale. 

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Some may see efforts to register low-income people and voters of color as beneficial to the Democratic Party. But most non-profit efforts, such as our organizations’, are strictly non-partisan – registering everyone, irrespective of party and never suggesting that anyone support a particular party or candidate. Moreover, in our national registration effort, the largest group of registrants chose to remain unaffiliated, and previous election data suggest that low-income people are far from monolithic in whom they support.

In short, Americans of all political persuasions should be concerned with this country’s voting deficit, and, in a difficult economy, need to identify new solutions to do more with less.

We have three words for them: social service agencies.

Nonprofit social service agencies are a type of private charitable organization – though many receive public funding. These groups provide essential services, including food, clothing, and counseling, to residents facing hardship. Through these programs, service providers develop trusted relationships with those who are least likely to be registered – those on the bottom end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

This makes them an enormous, and mostly untapped, partner for stimulating civic engagement. And in many ways, the nonprofit sector is also the only one left standing that is truly nonpartisan: Federal law prevents tax-exempt charities from endorsing or opposing candidates or political parties.

In an effort to help close the voting gap among low-income people, the Service Providers and Civic Engagement (SPaCE) Project was launched, a nine-state non-partisan effort to engage service providers in registering and mobilizing their clients before the November elections.

Approximately 70 service providers in states from Pennsylvania to Washington have already registered more than 8,000 people to vote. Among those already registered, project partners have gained 12,000 commitments to vote in the form of a signed pledge promising to cast a ballot.  And we plan to enlist thousands more before beginning Get Out the Vote efforts.

In New York, for instance, the Long Island Civic Engagement Table (LICET), a nonprofit initiative to increase civic participation, has worked with local service providers to register voters in waiting rooms, during the intake process, and at food pantries. LICET has registered roughly 1,000 local residents, in addition to the 3,000 voter registrations it has collected through traditional organizing methods.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Engaging service providers in coordinated civic engagement work will not solve all our nation’s voter turnout problems, but this grassroots innovation should become a part of the standard toolkit for increasing civic participation in America.

Daniel Altschuler is the coordinator of the Long Island Civic Engagement Table. Lindsey Hodel is the project director of the Service Providers and Civic Engagement Project. 

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