Skip to main content
Top Issues

The Urgent Work of Getting People to Vote

In a voting year as consequential as 2020, these leaders are showing voters how their choices shape schools, local communities, and more.

By Jessica Fregni

September 28, 2020

Ballots going into a ballot box.

In a regular year, Parker Mei and Jennifer Nguyen might be busy focusing on normal rites of passage for high school seniors: visiting campuses, prom, and graduation parties. Instead, their schedules are filled with phone banking, census outreach, and virtual voter registration events. 

That’s because Mei and Nguyen are volunteering with Mi Familia Vota Education Fund—a national civic engagement organization that unites Latinx, immigrant, and allied communities—to help ensure members in their community are registered and ready to vote in this important upcoming election.

For Mei, an 18-year-old senior at Cinco Ranch High School in Texas who is voting for the first time this fall, his decision to phone bank is a direct result of his family’s deep belief in the power of voting. Nguyen, a 17-year-old senior at Cypress Lakes High School in Texas, developed her passion for civics through her school’s growing activism scene. Although she will not be old enough to vote this election, Nguyen is doing everything she can get to get her friends, family, and community ready for November. 

People like Nguyen and Mei are dedicating themselves to the difficult and often unglamorous work of voter outreach because they know that a strong and thriving democracy requires a diversity of voters making their voices heard. 

But for far too many potential voters in low-income communities and communities of color, their voices are stifled by barriers to voter participation, including: lack of bilingual voting materials, consolidation of polling places, voter roll purges, strict ID requirements, and limited voting hours that are prohibitive to shift workers, among others.

And in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately cost people of color their lives, their livelihoods, and months upon months of classroom time, the work of getting a diverse coalition of people to vote is both more challenging—and more consequential—than ever before. 

That’s why these leaders, activists, and organizations are making it their mission to empower, educate, and motivate their communities to vote. From helping to register voters to improving language access to voting materials to informing voters about the candidates and issues on their ballot, they’re leaving nothing to chance come Election Day.

Unlocking the Next Generation of Youth Voters

Millions of Generation Z Americans—those born after 1996—will be able to vote for the first time in the 2020 election. Gen Z is projected to make up one-tenth of the 2020 electorate, according to Pew Research Center, and this cohort of voters will be more racially and ethnically diverse than past generations.

Reaching these voters is an essential strategy for growing diverse voter turnout. For organizations advocating for the Latinx community, the nation’s fastest growing bloc of voters, the youth vote simply can’t be ignored. Four million Latinx youth turned 18 since the 2016 election alone, according to Danny Turkel, the communications manager at Voto Latino Foundation. 

Voto Latino Foundation is a grassroots political organization focused on educating and empowering this emerging new generation of Latinx voters, and they’re betting big on activating these youth voters through a digital-first strategy. And it’s working. Voto Latino Foundation has registered over 780,000 voters through text and digital platforms, including 287,531 for the 2020 election cycle alone.

“In order to protect the health and safety of Latinx people across the country, it is imperative for all members of the community to get out and make their voices heard,” Turkel says. “Those young voters can finally take part in our democracy and stand up for their community.”

APIAVote, a national nonpartisan organization that works to mobilize Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in electoral and civic participation, is also working to connect with young Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) voters through a digitally focused strategy. 

Christine Chen, the founding executive director of APIAVote, has been working in Washington for 25 years. In the 1990s, there were only a handful of advocacy organizations for AANHPIs. But since then, she’s seen huge growth in the number of organizations dedicated to empowering AANHPI voters.

Over the past decade, the number of AANHPI celebrities and entertainers has grown dramatically, too—though there’s still a lot more work to be done, Chen says. That’s why APIAVote is working with a number of AANHPI celebrities, including Filipino-American rapper apl.de.ap from The Black Eyed Peas, to engage youth voters and point them to helpful resources. 

It’s a strategy that Chen believes will pay off, because AANHPI youth participation is on the rise.

“Coming off of 2018, we saw that voter turnout increased among Asians by 13 percentage points since the last midterm election in 2014,” Chen says. “We also saw that for young voters who typically have the lowest voter registration and engagement in our community, they tripled their participation in the midterm elections as well.”

Equally as important as registering new voters is helping youth voters develop habits of civic participation early on. The United States has one of the lowest levels of youth voter turnout in the world, in part because of insufficient civics education, a voting process that’s difficult to navigate with a busy school schedule, and because a lack of belief in the voting process.

But youth ambassadorship programs can be one tool to help address this, by empowering young people to encourage other young people to vote. 

For Mei, one of the youth volunteers with Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, the importance of voting was passed down to him through his family. “It's a very tight-knit Chinese community,” Mei says, “And they're like, ‘You have to vote because that's the only way we're going to be represented. You have to get out there and do it yourself.’”

However, his peers are less convinced about the power of voting. 

“They understand that like it was drilled into their heads like, ‘You should vote. It's civic engagement.’ But they still see that, no matter who is in office, their parents are still going to get laid off if the oil crash comes,” Mei says. “There are people who are still hunting for jobs. It's not easy.”

The tension between his family’s convictions and the disillusionment his friends and classmates feel with the voting process is often difficult to reconcile. Still, Mei continues to phonebank ahead of the election, and he’s encouraging his peers to make a plan, know where their polling place is, and do their research into candidates well in advance.

As for Nguyen, her friends and classmates are on board and have a positive association with voting—a fact that she attributes to her school’s popular activism club, Lakes 4 Lives. “My friends are very aware of the importance of voting and we talk about it all the time,” Nguyen says. “I always try to remind people who are eligible to vote to go out, get registered, do their research as soon as they can.”

“I always try to remind people who are eligible to vote to go out, get registered, do their research as soon as they can.”

Jennifer Nguyen

Senior at Cypress Lakes High School

Helping Voters Stay Safe During COVID-19 

Although COVID-19 continues to have a devastating impact on communities across the country, communities of color have disproportionately borne the brunt of the pandemic in all areas of life: health, education, housing, and employment. 

It’s little wonder then that communities of color are especially concerned about their safety while voting during the pandemic. While 43 percent of white voters said they’d vote in person on Election Day, only 33 percent of Black voters, 28 percent of Hispanic voters, and 21 percent of Asian American voters said they’d vote in person, according to Pew Research Center.  

Because the majority of Asian American voters are opting to mail in their ballot, APIAVote is working to ensure their community is prepared to do so. 

“API voters are highly motivated, and when you ask them about the comfort level in terms of how they're going to vote, a large majority are saying that they plan on mailing in their ballots and taking that option,” Chen explains. “But there is some discomfort in terms of understanding the best way of doing that.”

Mail-in absentee voting involves more steps than traditional voting. That’s because a voter needs to first make sure they’re indeed registered to vote. In most states they then need to apply for the application, receive the application, and fill it out before receiving their ballot. And then they need to make a decision: Do they have enough time to mail in their ballot? Does their state have any regulations about how the ballot is postmarked? Or can they drop off their ballot before election day? 

Any mistake in this process can lead to a ballot being rejected. That’s why Chen and her team are putting so much effort into helping their community feel confident with mail-in voting well in advance of the election. 

No matter how voters choose to cast their ballot, ensuring voters feel safe and informed while doing so is a top priority for Voto Latino Foundation. The organization created a resource for voting safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, outlining the steps to take for absentee voting and early voting, as well as ways to stay safe for those who choose to vote in-person on election day. 

But this is just one piece of the puzzle to helping voters feel safe during this serious public health crisis. 

“What we now need to fight for is a robust mail-in voting system, as well as properly funded polling places and expanded early voting periods,” Turkel says. “With all those in place, we can carry out a free and fair election. Opponents to those measures recognize the potential for disruption and suppression and are actively attempting to weaponize the pandemic for their own political gain.

Breaking Barriers by Improving Language Access in Voting

For immigrants and communities of color, one of the most pervasive barriers to voting is language access. 

Until the 1975 expansion of the Voting Rights Act, which requires voting materials be made available for so-called “language minorities,” many communities were effectively locked out of voting. But there’s still more work to be done to make voting more accessible, Turkel says. 

For greater accessibility, we need culturally relevant voting materials, properly translated voting information, and poll workers who can speak to our community,” Turkel says. “Making people feel welcomed and valued is the greatest way to get them to turn out to vote. They begin to feel a sense of duty to their community and their country.”

Language access is also a serious concern for the AANHPI community, which includes more than 48 ethnicities and over 300 spoken languages. APIAVote is addressing language access issues by translating mailers to over 700,000 AANHPI households across the country. The organization also hosts a voter hotline through which staff provide assistance in Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Urdu, Hindi, and Bengali.

There are other strategies for improving language access in voting. Nguyen, one of the youth volunteers with Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, was able to use her language skills as a volunteer for the 2020 census to get more Asian Americans counted in her community today—and secure more multilingual ballots tomorrow. 

The census can have a big impact on improving language access for voters. The availability of non-English ballots in any jurisdiction is directly based on the number of voting-age citizens who have limited English proficiency as counted by the Census Bureau, according to the Pew Research Center.

“I was canvassing, going door to door talking about the census. I really enjoyed that, personally, because it was mostly Asian Americans and I got to use my Vietnamese to help people.” Nguyen says. “I think that's very important that they receive the resources that they deserve.”

“If we don’t vote for the politicians who are going to advocate for our education and our students, other people will get to make those decisions for us.”

Danny Turkel

Communications Manager, Voto Latino Foundation

Educating Voters About How Local Elections Impact Schools

Access to an excellent and equitable education is a top concern across all demographic groups—especially as the COVID-19 pandemic lays bare the inequities in our school system. 

But few voters realize that local races, especially for elected school board members, have an enormous impact on the quality of their schools. School board members determine a school’s curriculum, its budget and allocation of resources, its vision and goals, its policies around discipline, among many other things. 

UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Latinx civil rights and advocacy organization, wants the Latinx community to know that their vote directly impacts their local school board. “I felt like 10 years ago it was like voting for president was important,” says Jared Nordlund, the Florida State Director at UnidosUS. “Now it's more about voting for everything that's on the ballot.”

“At Unidos, we say that our candidate is the Latinx community,” he adds. “We’re making sure that our candidate is the one that's at the front and center, and that their issues and values are being upheld.”

Part of that work involves the launch of The Unidos ¡Adelante! Campaign, which is engaging, informing, and mobilizing the Latinx community to play a decisive role in the 2020 election.

© Photo UnidosUS The Unidos ¡Adelante! Campaign is engaging, informing, and mobilizing the Latinx community to play a decisive role in the 2020 election.

This includes motivating a new turnout of Latinx voters by empowering them to vote for local officials, including school board members, who represent their interests and community. Knowing what school boards are, how they function, and how to advocate for a child’s needs can make all of the difference in determining how tax dollars are used for education, says Nordlund. 

“The community is going through a lot right now. How the school year ended last year, it was a jolt that you became a teacher for your child overnight,” Nordlunds adds. “And depending on the family situation, most of them just can't do that very well, because they're working two jobs.”

Voto Latino Foundation is also urging members of the Latinx community who are deeply concerned about the state of schools to vote.

“If we don’t vote for the politicians who are going to advocate for our education and our students, other people will get to make those decisions for us,” Turkel says. “The only way to ensure that schools are properly funded, teachers have the necessary resources, and students are getting the attention they need, is to vote in overwhelming numbers.”

Educating and Empowering Voters Ahead of Election Day

Getting people to polls (or voting via absentee ballot) is challenging enough. Ensuring those voters are informed and filling in their ballot completely, and with confidence, is another difficult matter. 

Aviva Rosman (Chicago ‘10) and her co-founder, Alex Niemczewski, launched the nonpartisan voting guide BallotReady to address this very serious issue of voters feeling uninformed. 

“This problem of walking to the voting booth prepared to vote for the president, governor, senator, and realizing there are many more names on the ballot. Essentially, having to guess while filling the ballot and feeling guilty like, ‘We failed this really important test of democracy,’” Rosman says.

The BallotReady website asks voters to enter their address and then shows them everything they would see in the voting booth on their ballot. With this tool, voters can compare candidates based on issues, biography, and endorsements, and then save their choices--which they can then reference when it comes time to cast their ballot. 

© Photo BallotReady BallotReady is urging voters to prepare and have a plan for voting in advance of election day.

This last part is important because getting people to fill out the entire ballot is a serious challenge. Thirty percent of people enter the voting booth and then leave part of the ballot blank, Rosman says. “They don't think they're informed and they say, ‘I should sit this one out because I don't know enough to make an informed decision,’” Rosman says.

BallotReady seeks to change that, because there is simply too much at stake for people to guess at which candidates represent their interests or leave entire portions of the ballot blank. And the part of the ballot that is most often left blank is the part where school board candidates, judges, and other local office holders are located.

“School boards, state legislators, sheriffs, district attorneys, they're all making decisions that affect our lives every day,” Rosman says. “Too oftenlike I didwe're electing them based on guesses.”

Few people realize just how much impact local elections have on their communities—or believe in the power their vote has in shaping their communities. This matters, because an electorate that lacks confidence in the voting process can be very detrimental to our society.

“Democracy is very fragile right now. Having people fully participate and fully understand and feel informed and confident will play a huge part,” says Rosman. “Because democracy's fragility is connected to people's belief in it. If people stopped believing in it, it stops working.”

“School boards, state legislators, sheriffs, district attorneys, they're all making decisions that affect our lives every day. Too often—like I did—we're electing them based on guesses.”

Aviva Rosman

Co-Founder and COO, BallotReady

Chicago Corps Member 2010

Resources for Voting

Use these resources to inform yourself before the election and help others in your community to prepare for election day. 

Teach For America is a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and does not endorse any campaigns or candidates for public office. Recipients of AmeriCorps funding, including most TFA corps members, are prohibited from engaging in political, voter registration, and census activities while charging time to their AmeriCorps grant.

We want your feedback. Share your thoughts on this story or suggest other stories for us to pursue.