Those of us who just voted in New York had to follow some pretty antiquated and cumbersome rules and procedures. Unlike voters in some other states, we could not register to vote on Election Day, we could not vote early and we could not vote by mail, unless we had a valid reason to request an absentee ballot.
For the past few elections, Community Votes worked with three large nonprofits that together reach over 10,000 people living in several of the city’s poorest neighborhoods to help make sure the communities they serve didn’t let these burdensome rules keep them from voting.
In 2014, Phipps Neighborhoods, Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation and Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement registered new voters, asked people to sign pledges to vote and sent out voting reminder postcards. Results showed that the people reached by these efforts were younger and poorer than the average voter – and that they turned out to vote at almost double their rate from previous elections.
In 2016, with professional training from the New York Civic Engagement Table and a small grant from Community Votes, these organizations continued their efforts and made thousands of voting reminder phone calls to their neighbors in the South Bronx, Queensbridge, Cypress Hills and East New York. Experience tells us that this initiative, focused solely on nonprofit voter education and engagement, will yield new and engaged voters that more accurately reflect New York City’s diverse neighborhoods.
The initiative has three prongs: registering, educating and turning out voters.
Registering voters: On a beautiful sunny September afternoon in Queensbridge, Gwendolyn Wilson, administrative assistant for the senior center at Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement, was making sure her 15 volunteers were ready for National Voter Registration Day. They had tables set up within the public housing development and outside the local library. They had voter registration forms and “I Pledge to Vote” cards. They had questions and answers for the civics jeopardy game they were using to entice people to their tables and prizes for all who played.
Organizing for this day began months earlier. The agency conducted a Community Votes art contest and invited program participants and community members to submit a piece of art with the theme “Your Voice Matters – Vote 2016!” The winning art was displayed at Riis Settlement’s annual Spring Arts Fair and used on their voter outreach flyers and banners. The local library was recruited to be a National Voter Registration Day site and its staff members were trained along with Riis Settlement staff to answer questions about registration deadlines, eligibility requirements and to practice talking about voting in a nonpartisan way. All this preparation worked. Gwendolyn said National Voter Registration Day went exceptionally well. Many of her volunteers were seniors who had signed up to work one-hour shifts – but her whole team stayed the entire four hours because they had such fun talking to their neighbors about the importance of showing up on Election Day.
Educating voters: At the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, Bryan Sanchinell helps young people enter the work world. He also wants them to become community leaders. To help his students think about how economics and politics can influence a neighborhood, he runs a workshop in which two groups of students are asked to build a community using paper, pens and masking tape – but the resources and students are not distributed evenly. One group is given 10 percent of the people and 90 percent of the materials and the other group gets 90 percent of the people and only 10 percent of the materials. Bryan explained that when he does the same workshop with young children, they immediately say this isn’t fair, let’s give some of our stuff to the other group. And even though he explains that that's against the rules, the children say “you can’t tell us what to do,” and go ahead and share some of their materials with the other group. With the older youth, every time, students accept the rule that redistributing materials is not allowed.
How does this connect to voting? At the end of the workshop, everyone talks about how inequality affects their lives and why they didn’t feel they had the power to challenge the rules. Bryan uses the debriefing session to argue that voting is one way to express their opinion about how they think public dollars should be distributed to and spent in their communities – then he hands out the voter registration forms.
Turning out voters: The night before the election, in a busy office inside East Bronx Academy for the Future, a public high school where roughly 70 percent of the student body is Hispanic, five students were making phone calls to remind people to vote. They were answering questions about polling times and locations and, to their delight, convincing a few previously uncommitted voters to head to the polls. Phipps Neighborhoods, a provider of student supportive services, selected five exemplary students to do the phone banking. They started working at the end of their school day and made their last call at 9 p.m. Though many lived over an hour away, they all arrived at 8:15 a.m. for the first bell at school the next day.
“Phone banking requires a good greeting, being polite and patient,” said Leon Rosa, a senior. Leon’s 18th birthday was eight days after the election, so he missed voting in what he described as a “big election.” “People need to choose carefully who we want to become president, and if everyone votes then they will get a bigger voice in what they want,” Rosa said.
Lamont Scott, a senior, started his calls after track practice. “Some people don’t want to vote and I tried to figure out why,” he said. He felt good about helping to change a few people’s minds. “It is not just about the president, but also about how our tax dollars are spent on housing, schools and education.”
“I want people to vote so there can be a change in the world, because whoever becomes president can help immigrants,” said sophomore Stephany Paez.
Louisa Hackett is the founder of Community Votes, an initiative that leverages the connections nonprofits have in local communities to engage voters and, ultimately, strengthen those communities through active participation in the electoral process.