As voter registration deadline arrives, nonprofits push to add NYers to the rolls

Are you registered to vote? That’s the question thousands of volunteers working for nonprofits have been asking New Yorkers for months in a significant push to engage the public in the democratic process.

Friday marked the last day for New Yorkers to register ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm elections. New or updated registrations had to be completed online, delivered in person to your county’s Board of Elections office or mailed in with a postmark of Oct. 12.

“New York is one of the lowest states in terms of voter turnout and registration,” Lauren Frederico, director of organizing for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said. “We want to make sure New Yorkers are voters – their rights depend on it.”

The NYCLU has been joined by multiple organizations in encouraging voter participation. Nonpartisan nonprofits like HeadCount, the League of Women Voters of New York City (LWVNYC) and even the Girl Scouts of Greater New York have been hosting voter registration drives all over the city ahead of Friday’s deadline.

On Thursday, members of the Girl Scouts braved the rain and wind in an effort to register voters – despite not being old enough to vote themselves. The girls set up voter registration drives in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, according to Meredith Maskara, the CEO of Girl Scouts of Greater New York.

“Ultimately at Girl Scouts we are teaching girls how to step into leadership and to be able to do that, they know they need to be civically engaged,” Maskara said.

There were 4.6 million active registered voters in the city in 2017 – up 134,194 from the year prior, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board. But more than 715,000 eligible New Yorkers didn’t register in time to vote in the citywide election last year, and over 450,000 people remained on the city’s inactive voter rolls.

Nonprofit organizations that are trying to improve those numbers rely on the help of hundreds of volunteers – young and old – in their efforts to register voters.

HeadCount, which hosts voter registration drives at concerts and music festivals, also enlists the help of musicians who use their platforms (online and on stage) to raise awareness about voting.

“It’s hard to get people to volunteer to register voters just on the sidewalk but it’s really easy to get people to register voters at a concert they already want to be at,” HeadCount’s director of communications Aaron Ghitelman said.

Unlike many political groups, nonprofits are restricted to only hosting nonpartisan events or else they risk losing federal tax exemption.

“Nonpartisanship is the most important thing. If you volunteer with HeadCount, the first thing that you’ll see is our volunteer manual,” Ghitelman said. “Beyond that, when you get to the booth, you’re trained by our team leaders and they’ll double down and remind everyone, ‘hey we are nonpartisan. Everyone has their own personal beliefs but this is not the time to share that.’ ”

Barbara Ettington, chair of the LWVNYC Voter Services Committee, views the organization’s nonpartisan status as a benefit, rather than a challenge.

“It allows us to go into locations that would not welcome partisan groups, like schools and libraries and corporations and even Broadway theaters,” she said.

On National Voter Registration Day alone, LWVNYC volunteers were registering voters at 17 locations in the city that had a low voter turnout last year.

HeadCount, meanwhile, teamed up with LaGuardia High School students as well as actresses Rachel Brosnahan and Lola Kirke to register several hundred voters in the Union Square subway station.

And these nonprofits’ hard work is paying off: LWVNYC and HeadCount are seeing massive increases in the amount of registrations as well as the number of requests for outreach events.

“We have been happily inundated with requests to set up voter registration drives,” Ettington said.

She estimates the LWVNYC has helped complete about 3,000 voter registrations this year, with about half of them done during a peak period in September.

HeadCount, which recently registered its 500,000th voter since launching in 2004, has seen more than double the voter registrations compared to the 2014 midterm elections.

“This year, HeadCount will do more shows than we’ve ever done before. More artists than ever have gotten involved,” Ghitelman said. “I think so much of it is that people are excited and people are hungry to make an impact in our community.”

After New York’s voter registration deadline passes, the nonprofits will turn their focus to the other half of the engagement equation: getting out the vote.

“It’s one thing to get people registered. It’s another thing to get them to the polls,” Ettington added.

With Fernanda Nunes