Continuing the Struggle for America’s Underrepresented Voters

We are living through what seem to be unprecedented attacks on our democracy. So far in 2023, 11 states have enacted restrictive voting laws, and an additional 322 bills have been introduced around the country that could greatly hamper voting. Enabled by the weakening of the Voting Rights Act, many of these same states have passed a record number of laws that restrict voting for the most marginalized populations of eligible voters. Since the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 removed the requirement for jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination to obtain federal approval for new voting policies — a process called “preclearance” — at least 29 states combined have passed 94 restrictive voting laws.

The statistics are startling and emphasize the importance of third-party civic-engagement organizations whose work helps American citizens make their voices heard at the ballot box. At the Voter Participation Center (VPC) and Center for Voter Information (CVI), we are celebrating our 20th anniversary on the front lines of the battle for equal voting rights, which is part of a larger, vital tradition of providing resources to and advocating for underrepresented voters. As we pause this weekend to remember the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, our mission has never been more urgent.

Nonprofit organizations share a robust history in America, going back to the civil rights era and before, of helping to register and turn out marginalized voters. In 1964, the NAACP and the Council of Federated Organizations launched Mississippi Freedom Summer, assembling hundreds of volunteers to register and turn out Black voters prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1957, the League of Women Voters established an organizational arm, the League of Women Voters Education Fund, to register and inform voters in the South and beyond. It was third-party groups, and not the government, that came to the rescue of underserved would-be voters.

Today we celebrate our role in this history and the ways in which our work has grown to make voting more accessible. The predecessor organization to VPC and CVI — Women’s Voices Women Vote — started with a focus on unmarried women. Our mission has expanded to engage the full “New American Majority” — that is, people of color, young people and unmarried women — with a goal of helping to facilitate a truly representative electorate and government.

In 2020, only 61% of eligible New American Majority voters went to the polls, as opposed to 75% of voters outside their ranks. This is the gap that we aim to close by reaching out to underrepresented communities through digital and mail programs. Since 2003, VPC and CVI have helped to register more than 6.1 million voters and encouraged tens of millions more to turn out to vote.

While we are proud of our work — including a recent win in federal court to block the enforcement of anti-voter provisions in Kansas Law HB 2332 — we and other advocacy organizations are looking ahead to the challenges voters may face in the current climate. In 2022, the urgency of such work became clearer. There are different evaluations of “underrepresentation,” but an analysis of voter files and census data indicates bigger turnout gaps between New American Majority voters and non-New American Majority voters than previously thought.

In the 2022 elections, our organizations sent 142 million pieces of mail to voters in 37 states. We generated 434,000 applications to register to vote, 585,000 vote-by-mail requests, and reached millions more through digital programs. In 2023, we will run our mail and digital programs in 26 states and begin to register voters ahead of 2024.

Before his death in 2020, civil rights icon John Lewis spoke from the heart about the power of the vote. “The vote is precious; it is almost sacred,” said Lewis, the Democratic congressman from Georgia. “It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society and we have to use it.”

His words resonate with us today. Greater voter participation means an electorate that is reflective of our country and the values of all Americans. It also means that governmental policies will have to address the needs of the majority of Americans. As many Americans worry about the state of our democracy, we are renewing our promise to fight for all eligible voters to have access to voting and the resources needed to participate. Elections should be a contest of ideas, not a contest of who gets to vote.

Tom Lopach is president and CEO of the Voter Participation Center and the Center for Voter Information.