Videos in American Sign Language are helping deaf and hard of hearing Minnesotans learn how to register to vote.
At food shelves, volunteers are handing out voter registration forms along with frozen yogurt. And at mosques, churches and temples across the state, religious leaders are reiterating: Go vote.
This year, nonprofits are boosting outreach to get more Minnesotans to vote in the Nov. 3 election, especially people of color and those who are often disenfranchised. While nonprofits have long focused on civic engagement — most recently, encouraging people to fill out the 2020 census — they’re doubling down on voter efforts as the COVID-19 pandemic increases interest in mail-in voting, which began in Minnesota Sept. 18.
“Nonprofits are really well-positioned to do civic engagement work. They’re rooted in communities,” said Catherine Gray, the Minneapolis Foundation’s director of impact strategy and civic engagement. “These are trusted messengers.”
Minnesota tops the nation for voter turnout, but white Minnesotans vote at a higher rate than people of color. In 2018, more than half of Minnesotans of color cast a ballot, narrowing the gap compared to 2014, according to Wilder Research. In 2018, 43% of Asian voters, 55% of Black voters and 65% of white voters participated in the midterm election.
“We are determined that, whatever happens, African American people will be registered to vote, will vote, will help other people vote, will understand the issues better,” said Alfred Babington-Johnson, CEO of the Stairstep Foundation, which has recruited 25 pastors to encourage voting — and staying civically engaged post-election. “It’s a huge opportunity for us to come to a new level of consciousness.”
Nonprofits are helping confront barriers that keep eligible voters on the sidelines, relaying information that’s culturally and language-specific through videos, social media and texts or phone calls..
The Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI) is passing out voter info along with fry bread tacos in Minneapolis later this month and at a pumpkin-carving event, while mailing out about 1,000 postcards to rural Minnesota to broaden voter outreach.
“We have a voice and collective power to make systematic change,” said Elizabeth Day, NACDI community engagement programs manager. “This year, there’s such a huge push to get out the vote and use your voice.”
Foundations are also increasing funding for voter outreach this year.
The Minneapolis Foundation gave grants to organizations to engage college students and to the Muslim American Society of Minnesota to mobilize immigrant communities of color. The McKnight Foundation awarded $150,000 to the Brooklyn Center nonprofit CAPI USA to expand civic engagement among immigrants and refugees. And the New York-based Park Foundation gave similar grants to the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and two Minneapolis nonprofits, Voices for Racial Justice and the Stairstep Foundation.
“Most foundations are a little reticent to fund voter engagement because they worry it’s too political,” Gray said. “But nonpartisan is really about democracy and democracy … shouldn’t be political.”
Tax-exempt nonprofits with 501(c)(3) status can encourage voting but can’t support or oppose candidates for office or use assets to contribute to a political campaign.
Deaf Equity, a nonprofit serving deaf, deaf-blind and hard-of-hearing Minnesotans, is using a first-ever grant to start voter engagement after doing similar census work.
Some of the more than 50,000 people with hearing loss in Minnesota may have skipped voting in the past because information isn’t communicated in American Sign Language (ASL), which is some residents’ first language, and people aren’t sure what kind of barriers they’ll face voting in person, board member Migdalia Rogers said in an e-mail.
Deaf Equity is posting videos on Facebook and Zoom as well as phone banking via videophones in ASL about how to register to vote or track a mail-in ballot. Rogers met a voter in their 70s who had never registered to vote until now.
In Minneapolis, Pillsbury United Communities has hired voter engagement specialists to educate and register voters and bilingual artists to create culturally relevant materials encouraging people to vote.
Voter outreach is more important than ever during the pandemic because people of color are disproportionately hospitalized, said Mónica Hurtado, racial justice and health equity organizer at Voices for Racial Justice. Civil unrest after George Floyd’s death spawned skepticism and fears about civic involvement.
Her organization is using a new $150,000 grant to fund online events and grants to seven other local organizations to do voter outreach. Mail-in voting during the pandemic can also be more confusing, Hurtado said, citing a group of Latino professionals who thought they needed a witness to submit an absentee ballot; due to COVID-19, there is no witness required for registered voters mailing in ballots in Minnesota.
Other eligible voters may be disillusioned about whether their vote matters, or busy just trying to make ends meet.
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“If somebody doesn’t get enough food on the table or doesn’t have access to resources, they cannot connect the dots that the power lies in their hands and they can make a difference by electing the right people,” said Ekta Prakash, executive director of CAPI, which provides food, housing and social services to low-income immigrants, refugees and people of color, mostly Asian Americans. “Even when you become a citizen in this country, you don’t feel like you have the power, so it needs a lot of education.”
The organization is reminding people to vote through phone calls, a Hmong radio show and through 15,000 fliers sent out in five languages this month. CAPI is part of a coalition of Asian organizations aiming to engage up to 9,000 new Minnesota voters before the election, double its efforts from the primary.
“The clock is ticking,” Prakash said. “There’s not much time left.”