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Charities’ vital role in encouraging people to vote

By David Bull 29 April 2015

During my stint as an 18-24 year old I fulfilled my fair share of the stereotypes. I willingly posted far too much about my life on social media, I was involved in a minor collision on the road, and—like around 60% of young people—I didn’t vote. However, there are signs that this last rite of passage may be about to change. A record number of people rushed to register to vote as the deadline loomed last week: nearly half a million in 24 hours, including 137,000 aged under 24.

While general voter apathy is a problem that everybody can play a part in addressing, the concentration of voter apathy in specific segments of the population is a substantial cause for concern—not least because these are often also people with specific needs to be met by government. Certain groups—young people, people from ethnic minority backgrounds, people with learning disabilities or people living in social housing, for example—are consistently under-represented at the polls.

Charities and social enterprises have supported and spearheaded a number of campaigns designed to encourage these groups to vote. This year vInspired called on young people to Swing the Vote, Inclusion London mounted Operation Disabled Vote and Homeless Link launched Your Vote Matters. The high-profile Operation Black Vote, which has recently turned heads, has its roots in the work of black community organisations during the Nineties. Meanwhile, beyond the high-profile campaigns, many charities such as Mind and Citizens Advice Bureau continue to provide advice on political participation as part of their regular services.

Politicians have also been rightly focusing on improving engagement in the democratic process; in fact, Nick Clegg’s analogy that not voting is ‘like going to Nando’s and asking someone else to put in your order’ has been a highlight for me of this year’s election campaign. But charities are often better at the job. Charities, unlike established authorities which may have caused people to become disillusioned in the first place, can make a real impact on getting people into the voting booths.

And democratic engagement comes in many forms. Even where they aren’t pushing directly to get people voting, charities have a head-start in understanding what’s at stake for the people with whom they work. They often work with specific communities (whether united by geography, age or need) and are generally trusted by the people they aim to reach (charities consistently command higher levels of public trust and confidence than MPs, government ministers, private companies and even other members of the public). We shouldn’t underestimate the potential impact on an individual of a positive message about the democratic process coming from a trusted source with an understanding of their situation.

Charities are in a position not only to reach marginalised groups, but to amplify their voices on the issues that matter. But voting, as we will all be reminded with remorseless regularity over the next week, is a central step in starting to make those voices heard.

The fact that so many young people have signed-up to vote is extremely welcome, and the role of charities in getting us this far is a cause for celebration. It’s a timely reminder of the unique character that charities possess, and the value that they can offer.

A version of this blog was first published by Spears Magazine as part of our philanthropy series.