Voter Participation Nonprofits Are Crucial for Democracy. We Must Protect Their Work.

Portrait of Tom Lopach standing in front of a wall with photos on it.
Portrait of Tom Lopach. Photo courtesy of Voter Participation Center

The author, Tom Lopach, is president and CEO of Voter Participation Center.

The Voter Participation Center (VPC) works for democracy where all voices are heard equally in elections and in political discourse.  A simple and truly democratic goal that is increasingly difficult in current times.

VPC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic engagement organization that works to ensure the New American Majority — people of color, young people and unmarried women — engage in democracy equal to their presence in society through voter registration, mobilization and education.

Members of the New American Majority collectively account for more than half of the Vote Eligible Population in this country, but they are registered to vote at rates lower than their fellow Americans. VPC is working to change that.

Being able to participate in democracy is crucial, but Americans have numerous competing demands on their time and energy: people are busy with work, school or putting food on the table. VPC helps the communities we serve by bringing democracy to Americans’ doorsteps or smartphones. We help voters register to vote and understand how they can cast a ballot amid their busy lives. That’s pretty important.

Since the women’s vote movement and the civil rights movement, nonprofit third-party groups like VPC have always been a part of the mix to help register and turn out voters. It is a proud tradition, and it's a history we continue today. Election offices are not always well-funded or well-equipped to help voters, and that’s part of why the work of nonprofits like ours is vital to democracy.

In 2020, VPC saw remarkable success in helping voters exercise their fundamental right to vote during the middle of a pandemic. VPC sent 371 million pieces of voter engagement mail in 2020, and VPC, together with its partner, the Center for Voter Information (CVI), helped register more people by mail than ever before. VPC and CVI helped more than 1.6 million people submit voter registration applications in key states, and 4.6 million voters signed up to vote by mail.

State governments ought to be encouraged by increased voter turnout, and many are. Unfortunately, some state governments have directly targeted our work, after our successful efforts to help voters in 2020.

In Kansas and Georgia, state lawmakers wrote new laws to make it harder to reach voters.

In Kansas, for example, a new state law criminalizes the mailing of advance mail ballot applications personalized with the voter’s name, address and other information, even if the voter provided that information and specifically requested an advance mail ballot application. VPC provides this service because we know pre-filling is the most effective way to encourage and assist voters to apply for advance mail ballots.

In Georgia, a new law imposes a $100 fine for every application sent by an organization like ours to a person who has recently requested, received or voted using a mail ballot—a major financial burden for those of us trying to help get mail ballot applications to registered voters.

Should the Georgia and Kansas laws stand, it’s only a matter of time before other states follow. 

Further, it’s only a matter of time before several states severely limit voter registration and get out the vote efforts, and it’s only a matter of time before vast numbers of Americans can only manage their own democratic participation by taking time off from work, paying to print and mail documents and/or driving to their county election office. 

Not everyone has a car, printer or a job that grants them this flexibility, and not everyone knows where their county election office is or has access to requisite transportation or technology. Such unnecessary barriers would only benefit politicians who want to stay in power and remain unaccountable.

That’s why VPC has teamed up with Campaign Legal Center to sue in Kansas and Georgia.

As I see it, the response to the anti-voter movement is a three-legged stool. Litigation is one part: the work of organizations like Campaign Legal Center helps make progress in the courts where we can. State and federal legislation is another: government must do its part to advance democracy.

Lastly, it takes voter registration and voter turn-out work — the kind we do at VPC — to affirm and ensure democracy.

I'm writing this on National Voter Registration Day, and today, we should rededicate ourselves to advancing democracy and responding to the anti-voter movement.

You can help. What can you do right now? Check that you are registered at your current address and reach out to people you care about to remind them to check their registration, update their registration if necessary or register to vote if they aren’t already registered. You can use VPC’s online tool to do so.

Together, we can defend voter participation and work to make the promise of democracy real for us all.

State-Level Legislation Restricting the Freedom to Vote in 2021