Nonprofits Should Protect Voters’ Rights from the Coronavirus
Stay-at-home orders and rising coronavirus infection rates have changed all of our lives. While it is tempting to stay focused on our immediate needs, challenges, and opportunities, we cannot ignore important events that are months away. While we are all hopeful that the coronavirus will be in the rearview mirror by the fall elections, infectious disease experts warn that not only will we be dealing with the coronavirus for months to come, but that there may be a second-wave outbreak this fall. A renewed spike in infections could lead to another round of stay-at-home orders at the height of campaign season and even on Election Day itself. Given this potentially catastrophic disruption to our democratic process, nonprofit advocates should act now to protect and enhance ballot access to ensure everyone who has the right to vote can do so safely.
Aggressive Voter Registration and Education
Now is an ideal time for nonprofits to encourage their constituencies to register to vote. Some people displaced by the coronavirus may need to re-register at their current address. In addition, nonprofits can educate voters on the process, locations, dates, and — perhaps most importantly — coronavirus-related changes.
Advocating for Expanded Absentee Ballot Access
If stay-at-home orders are still the norm as Election Day approaches, absentee balloting is a smart alternative for at-risk populations. Nonprofit advocates can review the state and local rules for absentee ballot access and publicize the deadlines and steps registered voters should take to request an absentee ballot and ensure they can cast their vote without worrying about going to a polling place. Organizations that want to do more can push for expanded access to absentee ballots, including advocating for no-excuse absentee voting in places where travel or work requirements are currently required.
Advocating for Vote-by-Mail
In the 1990s, Oregon was a pioneer in the United States by establishing mandatory vote-by-mail, eliminating the notion of voting booths, hanging chads, and touch screens altogether. The result is Oregon is a national leader in voter turnout and continues to include alternative mechanisms to allow ballot drop-off up until 8 PM on Election Day. The result is a system that is more secure and catches mistakes, while improving access to the vote. Oregon’s success shows we don’t need to choose between our fundamental right to vote and public exposure to the coronavirus at polling places. Nonprofits can advocate for a shift to vote-by-mail as at least a temporary measure for the 2020 elections, if not a permanent shift. While such activities may constitute lobbying, they are permissible for public charities.
All Hands on Deck
Nonprofits of all types can engage in nonpartisan voter registration, education, and ballot access advocacy. While 501(c)(3)s are prohibited from engaging in any activity that supports or opposes specific candidates, everything outlined above is about equal ballot access regardless of party preference or governing philosophy. For more information on nonpartisan voter registration and education, see Alliance for Justice’s publication, The Rules of the Game.
Advocacy for ballot access and vote-by-mail that would require new legislation may count as lobbying activity, so 501(c)(3)s should be mindful of their lobbying limits and track that activity to report it properly. For more information on lobbying, see Alliance for Justice’s publication, Being a Player.
Other types of nonprofits, including 501(c)(4)s, are equally free to engage in this activity. It doesn’t matter if your organization is typically focused on social services, environmental causes, access to healthcare, or education reform. Now is the time to ensure everyone in your constituency has the opportunity to vote in the face of unprecedented challenges from the coronavirus crisis.
 Private foundations are allowed to engage in voter registration activity but must comply with elevated legal requirements compared to other nonprofits. For more information see Voter Registration Rules for Private Foundations and Want to Conduct or Fund a Voter Registration Drive?.