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How funders can bolster direct voter engagement  

A group from the Asian American Federation getting the word out about voting.

Direct, personal engagement is one of the most effective ways to increase voter turnout, especially among people who are less inclined to vote. In the 2021 New York City municipal elections, low-propensity voters who were engaged by nonprofits providing support and services in their communities and therefore seen as trusted messengers turned out at double the rate of those who were not. 

GoVoteNYC is a funder collaborative housed at the New York Community Trust. Since 2021, about a dozen foundations have invested $2.5 million in grants and over $13 million in aligned funding to support nonpartisan voter engagement. This year, GoVoteNYC is continuing to support this trusted messenger approach, while also asking: “What’s changed since 2021, and how do we need to adapt?” Here we’ll share what we’ve learned through a series of conversations with our grantee partners.  

Grantee partners are facing three major challenges that must be addressed to ensure successful direct voter engagement. The New York Civic Engagement Table (NYCET), which plays a coordinating and support role for GoVoteNYC, has heard of similar challenges from peers across the country.  

Ensuring the safety of canvassers 

First, safety. Several grantees reported unsafe encounters while canvassing door-to-door and at community events. NYCET also has seen an increase in reports of hostile encounters. The New York Times recently reported on increasing public support for politicized violence nationwide.  

In response, NYCET has strengthened protocols to ensure canvassers’ safety, such as recommending that they go out in pairs, ensuring that they have organizational branding like T-shirts to identify themselves, and establishing check-in and debrief procedures. They’re also providing language guidance and de-escalation training, so that canvassers are prepared in the case of a hostile interaction.  

Pivoting to ‘targeted relational organizing’ 

The second challenge is the declining effectiveness of get-out-the-vote texting. It was effective in 2020 when it was new and compelling and people on lockdown were glued to their phones. But in 2022, GoVoteNYC partnered with Columbia University professor Donald Green to conduct randomized testing of grantees’ voter mobilization tactics. The testing showed that there was no meaningful increase in turnout from mass texts and phone bank calls. One group sent targeted text messages to nearly 175,000 registered voters ahead of the June 2022 New York State primary elections; the turnout among those voters was only 0.1 percentage point higher than among comparable voters who did not receive the texts.  

Given this shift, Faith in New York is leaning into relational organizing—working with trusted messengers in churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, and other religious communities. They’re also engaging in in-person conversations where community members gather: bodegas, barber shops, beauty salons, and braiders.    

Organizations are still using texts but focused on targeted relational texting. The Asian American Federation is engaging voters through personal connections; they’ve seen that it’s meaningful to receive a message from a friend. The Hispanic Federation is using texts with practical information—such as polling locations—as a follow-up to in-person conversations as part of a layered approach. NYCET offers tools like REACH and Empower to enable people to track their contacts with friends and family. Research shows that texting reminders had a significant positive effect on getting friends to vote. 

Engaging young voters 

The third challenge is youth disillusionment. Young people are among the most active and engaged organizers and canvassers, yet right now, many feel disillusioned about the candidates. They’re also exposed to a lot of misinformation through social media. In response, groups like New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) are emphasizing issue-based engagement—for example, around the Equal Rights Amendment that may be on the state ballot this November. The Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College found that in 2022, engagement around New York City’s racial justice ballot initiative helped it connect with young people and highlight how their votes can shape issues relevant to their lives.  

And grantees are connecting not only young voters but all voters to issues directly impacting their communities. For example, El Puente is engaging public housing residents around issues such as the need for repairs and investments. While this strategy centers the needs of a specific neighborhood or community, many of these issues—more affordable housing, improved public transportation, better schools—will motivate voters nationwide. 

Civic engagement to boost voter turnout requires an ongoing dialogue, and that dialogue is not always easy. Direct person-to-person interaction remains the gold standard of voter engagement, but it needs to be bolstered. We believe being intentional about listening to grantees and supporting their leadership in adapting is a replicable approach, and one that can help keep democracy strong. 

Photo credit: Asian American Federation


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