A beginner's guide to making a difference.

By Kimberly Truong
Updated Aug 17, 2020 @ 7:00 am
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Credit: Getty Images. Design by Jenna Brillhart

In recent weeks, protests against racism and police brutality across the nation have strengthened a sense of political activism in the United States. But while this moment of galvanization is a great start, it's important to remember that we can't lose momentum — and that this is a movement that has to go beyond a moment. We have to continue to fight for what we believe in. That means participating in politics and continuing to speak up.

Getting politically active may feel intimidating if you're not sure where to start, but it's never too late to get involved and make your voice heard. Here's a primer of some of the most essential steps you can take.

Register yourself and others to vote.

How to register yourself to vote: 

If you haven't already done so, register to vote — not only for the presidential election this November, but also for your local elections. Make sure you check with the U.S. Vote Foundation or your state or territory’s election office to find your state’s deadline for registration for an upcoming election.

Currently, 39 states plus the District of Columbia allow online voter registration. If your state is one of them, you can go to Vote.gov and enter your state to be redirected to the right site to register. If your state doesn’t offer online voter registration, you can register to vote by mail with the National Mail Voter Registration Form. You can also register in person at your local board of elections office, but with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it may be safer to register remotely if you can.

How to register others who are eligible: 

It's also important to encourage others around you to register, as well — even those who may feel apathetic about it or feel as if their voices won't be heard.

"You have to remind folks that their vote does matter, especially the more local ones," says Alexis Magnan-Callaway, the national mobilization director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "A lot of local races are decided within the margin, so just a few votes can make a difference."

There are two main ways you can do this. The first is to share the voter registration forms on social media (you can find them here). The second is to do it in person by handing out forms and volunteering.

Voting (especially during a pandemic).

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Amid the pandemic, more states have made it easier for people to vote by mail. According to the Open Source Election Technology Institute, 46 states now offer every eligible voter the option to mail in their ballot. To vote by mail, you can start by checking your state's absentee ballot rules and apply for your ballot on Vote.org.

While there's been controversy over mail-voting fraud, the number of actual potentially fraudulent mail-in ballots (such as double voting or voting on behalf of deceased people) has been found to be 0.0025% — too statistically small to actually make a difference.

What is a very real threat in our elections, however, is voter suppression, which is when actions are taken to purposefully make it more difficult or impossible for people to vote. Marc Elias, a political law attorney and founder of Democracy Docket, says we've already seen voter suppression in recent weeks in the hours-long lines at polling stations in Georgia.

"The single biggest way we’re seeing voter suppression right now is inadequate polling locations," he says. "We saw four- or five-hour long lines in Georgia because there was massive failure of voting machines. People literally didn’t have machines to vote on."

Voter suppression has historically targeted minorities and young people, and, Elias says, benefits "candidates who perform better among older white voters, which tend to be Republicans."

Canvas for a candidate.

Voting isn't the only way to make your voice heard and make a difference. If you're passionate about getting involved in politics, one way to do so is to volunteer for a campaign or canvas for a candidate.

Naureen Akhter, a deputy district director who began volunteering for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's campaign after seeing the now-congresswoman speak at a rally in 2017, says the most effective way to engage is to show up.

"The real change comes from the bottom up," Akhter says. "If we are tired or disappointed with systemic problems in our country, the way to change it is for each of us to get more involved locally and change the political structures around us."

Akhter, who began with phone banking and then offering to help Ocasio-Cortez collect signatures in Jackson Heights, adds that it's best to start locally. Before COVID-19 hit, that may have meant physically showing up to spaces where people are meeting and showing up to campaign offices. Now, we might have to get more creative.

"That will entail showing up virtually by following candidates on social media, where they’ll often put out calls to action like phone banking events," Akhter says. "If you do have an hour of time on a weekend or money to donate or friends you can share info to, these actions work collectively to amplify your candidate and push their agenda forward. 

Magnan-Callaway also advises starting with a cause you're passionate about — whether that's climate change, racial injustice, or education — and doing some research on local organizations whose work aligns with your passions.

Follow leaders and organizations.

Beyond participating when you can, it's also essential to stay informed and up-to-date.  You can do so by following voting organizations that not only fund candidates but keep followers informed about specific issues.

A non-profit, nonpartisan organization that seeks to increase participation in elections and close the race and age voting gap.

An organization that promotes fair elections in Georgia and around the country, encourage voter participation in elections, and educate voters about elections and their voting rights.

An organization dedicated to recruiting and supporting young candidates running for down-ballot office.

A nonpartisan nonprofit working to increase the number of women considering a run for public office.

A national organization dedicated to convening, connecting, and amplifying voices in the fight for full gender equity.

Fight for others' right to vote.

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Who can vote?

To be able to vote in the U.S., you have to be a U.S. citizen, turn 18 on or before Election Day, and meet your state's residency and registration requirements. Unfortunately, many people still can't vote, including some people convicted of a felony, undocumented immigrants, and people in Puerto Rico (who can vote in primaries, but not federal elections).

If you want to fight for other people's right to vote, Magnan-Callaway suggests joining in on campaigns and organizations that are working to extend voting rights. One example is the Our City, Our Vote campaign, which advocates for legislation that would restore municipal voting rights to New York City residents with lawful presence. Elsewhere, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is working to end disenfranchisement against people with convictions.

When it comes to voter suppression, Elias says, "What’s really important is that people speak out. I cannot emphasize how much power people have in fighting voter suppression by speaking out about it and making their voices heard. It’s important that people hear from the public and that we shine a light on it."