Can’t Vote? Here Are Five Ways You CAN Participate

Millions of Americans aren't allowed inside the ballot box. Here's how they can still shape the political process.

By Kyle Bella Nov 02, 2010

It’s Election Day. Go vote, if you can. But while the focus for many is on casting ballots, many other people–particularly in communities of color–won’t be able to do so. Why? Sadly, too many reasons.

Perhaps the most common barrier to voting is that African-American men in particular face felony convictions at much higher rates than the general population; in all but two states–Maryland and Vermont–felony convictions disqualify people from voting, until they get their convictions removed from their records. As a result, more than five million people are unable to vote, according to the Sentencing Project, including 13 percent of black men. No surprise, given the racial disparity in incarceration. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies reported in 2008 that "there were nearly 2.2 million persons in America’s prisons and jails as of 2005–60 percent of whom were black or Latino," even though they comprise only 25 percent of the total population collectively.

Another thing keeping people of color out of the ballot box is immigration status. Tens of millions of immigrants, both documented and not, have made lives in the U.S. but are unable to vote. Youth, as well, are a huge population of Americans who are unable to vote and are often completely ignored as people who can contribute to the political processes of the communities in which they live.

Luckily, the ballot box doesn’t define the limits of political engagement. So we culled some advocates’ ideas on civic engagement for people who cannot (or will not) vote. In fact, even if you do vote, it’s a handy list of things you can do after your ballot’s cast.

Help Get Out the Vote

One of the most straightforward, widespread, and immediate political actions to be involved in is Get Out The Vote (GOTV) work. You might even be able to help today still! It definitely should make the next election’s to-do list. This is diverse activism, encompassing everything from working the phones to encourage registered voters to go to the polls to offering transportation for elderly and disabled voters. You can also phone bank in advance of elections to educate voters about how to register, where they can vote, and all other relevant information.
(Photo: Creative Commons/OFA California)

Be a Watchdog–Go to Hearings!

The focus of electoral politics is often on congressional and Presidential races. But the fact is that local political leaders–from mayoral candidates to city board members–have considerable sway in shaping politics of blocks, neighborhoods or communities. And long after the voting ends, the mundane business of governing impacts people’s lives daily. There are city council meetings, school boards, health boards, zoning committees–all of which make decisions that can have dramatic impact on local communities. Nearly all of these meetings are open to the public and allow for open comments on proposals. No matter the community–whether rural, suburban or urban–attending and speaking up can have dramatic impact on your most immediate surroundings. For a list of days and times of these meetings, check out your local government website or call your city hall. (Photo: Creative Commons/Lady Ducayne)

Hold Your Own Hearings

Don’t feel like your concerns are being addressed in official forums? Then create a new forum for them to be answered through the development of or participation in community-led forums. These forums invite local and state elected officials to field questions developed by citizens who want to know, "What are you doing to make this change happen in my community?" These events typically include voter registration and encourage citizens to contact local elected officials directly. One organization that uses these forums actively is Voices of Formerly Incarcerated Persons (VOTE) New Orleans, an organization dedicated to nurturing the political vote of those having served felony convictions. As the group says in describing itself: "VOTE is partnering with numerous community organizations to bring New Orleans residents’ concerns directly to the candidates." (Photo: Creative Commons/Korean Resource Center)

Organize Your Block or Building

Political action doesn’t need to be defined by immediate engagement with elected officials. One of the most impactful ways to get involved is by creating or joining a neighborhood association that brings together community members to develop consensus on problems that need to be fixed and the best strategies for doing so. These organizations can take on many forms and advocate for a variety of different causes. Tenant associations, meanwhile, are focused explicitly on housing issues, whether it’s a neglectful landlord or spiraling rent. Many have become meaningful political players in city politics, and public housing residents in particular have used tenant associations to create change. Here’s a handy resource page with advice on building a tenant association. (Photo: Creative Commons/Daniel Lobo)

Learn the Ropes

Youth are often neglected in the political process. But mobilizing youth, particularly within communities of color, can have dramatic political impacts. One of the biggest barriers that prevent youth from participating within politics is a lack of education. Civic engagement curriculum simply doesn’t make the list in too many public schools. As a result, a number of organizations have developed youth leadership institutes or programming that promote civic engagement, knowledge of the political process and opportunities for direct engagement within politics. Two examples of such programs are the Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project (CLYLP) in California and FIERCE, an organization based in New York City specifically for LGBTQ youth of color. CLYP organizes a yearly, week-long high school leadership program that brings youth from across the state to Sacramento, allowing them meet elected officials and learn about the political process. FIERCE organizes the "Education for Liberation Project," which is a two to three month paid internship program that teaches community and political organizing skills.
(Photo: FIERCE))