What do communities want to know about voting? You Can Vote shares tips and strategies.

By Catherine Komp

Newsletter Editor

Over the last decade, the nonprofit You Can Vote has grown from an all volunteer-run organization to 20 staff, a presence in 64 counties, 600+ partnerships and direct outreach to a million-plus people across the state.

Founded by Kate Fellman in 2014, the nonpartisan organization aims to turn people into lifelong voters and provide them with the trusted information and resources they need to make informed choices all the way down the ballot. 

“We think of ourselves as a campaign without a candidate,” said Deputy Director Caitlin Metzguer. “We are a public education campaign created to make sure that folks know the rules in North Carolina, the voting dates, the deadlines, and what to expect when they go to vote each year.”

And they do a lot more. You Can Vote (YCV) has created “Know Your Rights” guides, voter education toolkits and explainer videos. A simple, digital voter guide explains all the offices up for election and helps people connect the dots between what they care about and which offices make policy decisions about those issues. In a few weeks, they’re launching an interactive “Build Your Ballot,” where voters can locate their polling place and explore nonpartisan info about candidates running for election. 

They are at dozens of events each week, helping register voters, disturbing their guides and most importantly, engaging in conversations. One of their most valuable lessons: people have a lot of questions about voting, and sometimes might feel awkward to ask them. So they launched “Voter Confessionals,” an anonymous way to share concerns or uncertainties about voting. 

I had the chance to chat with Caitlin about what they’ve learned about communicating with the public about voting, and how they’ve continued to evolve and adapt based on their extensive fieldwork. Our conversation below is edited for length and clarity.

Want to learn more about how to use and adapt You Can Vote’s resources and develop strategies for reaching your audience with election information?

Join the NC Local News Workshop’s monthly election roundtable, Wednesday July 24 at Noon. Register here.


NC Local: You Can Vote launched in 2014 following the historic US Supreme Court decision in Shelby versus Holder, invalidating parts of the Voting Rights Act. What need or gap were you trying to fill?

Caitlin Metzguer, You Can Vote

Caitlin Metzguer: After the decision in 2013, there was a lot of confusion across the states, but certainly in North Carolina because the day after that decision from the US Supreme Court, there was legislative movement in our North Carolina General Assembly that altered many of the voting rules. So our founder and Executive Director Kate Fellman created You Can Vote to tell people that— it’s all in the branding: “you can vote and we can help.” 

We wanted to make sure that folks did not feel like just because the rules had changed and had maybe become more complicated, that it was not accessible to them. 

What have you learned over the last decade about what kinds of information people want and need about voting? 

We’ve learned that people still need the basic mechanics of voting: how do you register? How do you find your sample ballot? How do you make your voting plan? Those kinds of top line mechanics of voting haven’t changed in the sense that people still need to know them. 

But what makes it difficult at times is that things change so fast either based on litigation in North Carolina or rules that have changed based on the legislature. So even when someone considers themself an expert on voting, where someone votes successfully three or four years in a row in North Carolina, the experience that they’re preparing for in 2024 is not going to match their experience in 2020. Even if they successfully voted earlier this year, some rules have changed since the primary. So we are very focused on just sharing what people need to know. 

What’s your strategy for outreach? 

We focus on voters who are not already lifelong voters, so we try to support creating that habit for voters. That encompasses basically all young people in North Carolina under 40. We have a very high population of university students in North Carolina. We also have a lot of folks becoming citizens here and gaining that right as a U.S. citizen who lives in North Carolina. We also have a lot of young families moving to this area. 

We are really hyper focused on the North Carolina rules. We are hyper focused on finding new voters who need a little support casting their ballot. And we follow the national data. The trends show that if a person can vote successfully three times in a row, they become a lifelong voter. So we’re trying to help create that possibility for as many people as we can. 

You have a lot of partnerships, 600+. Could you share a bit more about some of the unique ones? How does it work with the Panthers?

The Panthers came to us. We worked with the management and then created scripts for many of the players to read. They were on commercials, they were on social media, they were used on the billboards during the game, encouraging people to get registered, encouraging people to look up their sample ballot, encouraging people to make sure they know the difference between early voting and Election Day.

It’s basic information, but we find that the messenger matters so that people can absorb that message. The Panthers is one of our biggest and we partner with the Charlotte Hornets because they have such a big following as well. 

But we’re also community partners with the Lincoln Health Center and Duke Hospital, we do events with the VA Hospital. We go to food pantries and mobile clinics across our different regions. Certainly the high schools and colleges and community colleges are big partners for us to help us get the word out. We’re partners with other groups like Common Cause is having this huge festival in September, Carolina Daze. We’ll be providing voter registration at that event too. 

Sometimes people come to us. Sometimes we approach partners. But the main goal of that is to expand our reach and make sure that everyone, even if they consider themselves an expert on voting, that they know what’s true right now for this upcoming election. 

Tell us about your voter guides. What formats do you offer and what info are you providing? 

Our fridge card is a two sided postcard. We often say to our volunteers, everything you need to know is on the fridge card. The very first thing you need to know is when is Election Day so the dates are always right up front. The next thing you need to know is who’s eligible, that’s next. Then, the three ways to vote, how to get registered and then Voter ID. 

At our events, the fridge cards are part of how we count how many conversations we’ve had. We know we’ve used and distributed more than a million of these in the past 10 years. Some organizations would just hand volunteers a stack, say you go hand these out. That’s not actually our model. Our model is to use these as our conversation piece so that we can say that’s how many people we individually or directly had a conversation with. 

And you also have printable and interactive guides about “What’s on the ballot?”

There is a lot of focus in the media at the top of the ticket and everyone knows when it’s a presidential year. Everyone knows when there’s a U.S. Senate race. Generally, everyone knows that this year there’s the governor’s race. 

We do still see a big education gap in what else people are going to see on the ballot. And so we created that as a tool because one, just because you’re registered to vote doesn’t mean you’re ready to vote. So part of that education is what to expect. Looking up your sample ballot and seeing a bunch of names can be unhelpful if you don’t know what those people are going to do. 

In most of my conversations, people don’t know what the county commissioners do, and I usually argue that’s one of the offices that has so much power and you should know their names and you should know what they do and you should go to their meetings. They get to use all their budgeting power and they get to make decisions about what gets funded and what doesn’t. The president doesn’t get to decide if a new school is built in your community. The US Senate doesn’t get to decide if a bike lane is built in your community. These hyper local decisions are made by local candidates. 

It’s still true that people feel very strongly, usually one way or the other, about the top of the ticket, or they just don’t want to hear about it because people are very turned off from what’s happening in DC. But in North Carolina this year, there’s over two dozen races, and so there’s absolutely something on people’s ballot that impacts something they care about and we want to help make that connection for voters that, if you’re not interested in what’s happening in DC, let’s look at all the other things that are happening right now in your ZIP code. 

You’re getting ready to release a new tool, called Build Your Ballot. Tell us about this resource.

Build Your Ballot tool from You Can Vote

This is our first time that we’ll be using that and we saw it as a great opportunity because, after we educate people about the powers of different offices and how to look up their sample ballot, usually the next question after that is how do I research these people? 

We felt very strongly about using a nonpartisan tool, of course. And there are a lot of other voter guides out there, some of them are specific to some offices, some of them like Vote 411, is one that we’ve been recommending for years, which is a great tool generally, but it comes out a little bit later in the year and also depends on the candidates to reply [to a survey] and give their responses. And so it’s sometimes common that you know the Soil and Water Conservation District manager might not reply or all the legislative candidates might not reply.

So Build Your Ballot, which we will be launching hopefully in the next couple of weeks, is completely nonpartisan. It’s not an endorsement of any kind. It uses multiple sources to cite what those candidates believe. And it’s also interactive in that after you use it and do your own research on your ballot, you can actually vote and give feedback to say, “Did you find this nonpartisan or was it slanted one way or the other?” And then we can be reactive to that and make sure that we are only providing straight up facts and not an endorsement of one side or the other. 

I see you translate some of your materials into Spanish. What else are you doing in terms of accessibility? 

Generally we have only translated our materials into Spanish and English, but we also refer people to other organizations like the North Carolina Asian Americans Together, which has translated some of our materials before. We also work with partners like Disability Rights North Carolina, which helps us create accessibility language for our Know Your Rights guides. 

The creation of most of our Spanish materials is generally from feedback that we get from our partners and our volunteers about what people want to use and are looking for and so not every single thing is translated, but we are working to get more of those done. We also work with the Hispanic Liaison and El Centro, who have their own versions of voter guides, so there’s a lot of cross sharing there and we will link to some of their materials and vice versa. And that’s true of a couple of other organizations that do additional languages. 

How have you worked with news organizations?

Kate and I both do interviews, but our website is also made to be used as a resource for the media. Obviously it’s a virtual source, but we do have a lot of printable materials too. In the next couple weeks, we’ll have a section that is completely printable resources. We have social media toolkits so partners can share information through all those different mediums as well (and new ones are coming in a few weeks).

We also have a YouTube Channel, and a new voter registration tutorial because there’s a brand new form this year. We have more videos coming. So we are expanding to use more videos and TikTok and all those things. 

How else could news organizations partner or collaborate with you?

One thing that we bring to the table is that we are out talking to people all the time. Our program is very voter facing. There are some organizations who do a lot of advocacy and a lot of toolkit creation, but it’s based on more of an academic lens or an advocacy lens. 

What we are creating and sharing is based on feedback that we get from our volunteers and staff and fellows. We created the “What’s on the Ballot” tool because people were like, “I don’t know how to talk about the Soil and Water Conservation District.” We assume that people just know it’s important or we just let the candidates talk, but what we often find is that creating a lifelong voter also doesn’t stop at voting. You should be able to know how to contact those people once they’re actually elected, and build that relationship with your local officials. So we can offer media organizations the kind of real life, on the ground feedback from what we’re hearing. And I think news organizations can use us as a resource because we are not trying to sell a candidate. We’re not trying to say “You’ve got to vote to save our democracy.” Our message is “You can vote and we can help.”

Is there something I haven’t asked you that you would like to share? 

I would love to just say for all news organizations, when you mention Election Day, include the date: Election Day, November 5th. And when you say early voting, list the dates. I think that’s one small thing that I’ve noticed that those of us who are in this world pay attention to all the time, but not everyone knows when Election Day is. Those small details I think can really be helpful to support voters in North Carolina.

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