Now is the Time to Act: Museums & Civic Responsibility


Over the last few months, there has been growing concern and anxiety around how and where to cast a vote for November’s 2020 General Election.

Living in a pandemic, it has become essential that people feel safe and are given the choice to vote by mail rather than having to risk their health in a dense, concentrated environment. But the recent cost-cutting push at the U.S. Postal Service has shaken the confidence of voters and election officials.

Now, states are looking for alternatives to mail-in ballots including ballot drop-boxes, curbside voting, and expanded socially distanced in-person polling sites (NY Times). Committed to protecting the right for people to make their voices heard, many states are still offering hundreds of locations where voters can safely cast ballots in-person. Even in the face of a pandemic and the USPS controversy, some people still want and need to vote at their local neighborhood polling place.

In these unnerving times, it is even more imperative that museums and cultural institutions do their part in making voting accessible to all. As crucibles of social responsibility, civic engagement, and edification, museums have the foundation to serve its people and the greater society by helping limit voter suppression efforts, boost voter registration, and inspire Americans to cast a ballot.

Charles A Hyde, President & CEO at Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, states that an Enormous national effort has been made in recent years to encourage voter registration and turnout, but not as much thought or care appears to have gone into the civic obligation of individual institutions, organizations and trusted community spaces to serve as polling locations. Considering how much the museum field prides itself as acting in the public trust, it seems a strange oversight that comparatively few of our institutions are meeting this vital civic need” (Why Museums Should be Proud Polling Sites, Smithsonian Magazine).

To better serve the public during this crucial moment in time, museums can and should demonstrate their civic responsibility through a variety of voter engagement strategies. You can find these strategies on our Voter Registration & Civic Engagement page. However, we would also like to draw attention to them here.

Model Good Civic Leadership​

Become an incubation of innovative, actionable ideas that create long-term change and policy shifts.

Demonstrate a commitment to analysis and consistently address pertinent questions around diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. Become a meeting place for all people, communities, and sectors.

Model good civic leadership by enthusiastically participating in democracy in a nonpartisan way. From when, where, and how to vote, to mobilizing staff and advertising Election Day, your institution can help your local communities participate in the 2020 General Election. Here are 10 things your institution can do from now until Election Day.

Raise Awareness & Educate

As nonprofits, museums and cultural institutions are required by law to remain nonpartisan in any election activities. However, we can still play a critical role in spreading awareness and promoting equity in democracy. When it comes to remaining nonpartisan while engaging your staff and community members, these resources from Nonprofit Vote can help.

When it comes to mobilizing your staff and volunteers in get-out-the-vote activities, you can train your staff in what to say about the upcoming election.

Many of us already have websites, social media channels, and/or newsletters set in place that can be leveraged to distribute information, promote voting registration, and help combat voter suppression. Nonprofit Vote offers a guide on how nonprofits can use social media to promote voting, engage and educate prospective voters, and raise awareness using a nonpartisan approach.

Learn how to better engage students in racism and civic education through iCivics – a nonprofit whose mission is to ensure that every student in America receives a quality and engaging civic education and graduates from high school well prepared and enthusiastic for citizenship.

Promote & Provide Voter Registration

This Voter Engagement Checklist from Nonprofit Vote suggests that your organization should first decide on an approach that will benefit both you and the people you serve. Whether your organization will actively register voters, focus on promoting voter registration, help voters register online, or all of the above, there are many ways you can encourage registration this election year.

If your institution is now open to the public and would like to actively register voters, you need to first understand your state’s voter registration procedures for how to host a registration drive, and how to acquire and return forms.

If you choose to have your staff promote registration by personally reaching out to at-home audiences, again, please train your staff in what to say about the upcoming election. Here is a great sample script on how to talk about voter registration and get people to say “YES” to signing up to vote.

Serve as A Polling Place

According to Nonprofit Vote, not only do nonprofits have the ability to reach populations that are less likely to vote, but they are effective in increasing voter turnout. Statistics show that typically less than half of registered voters actually turn in their ballots, and by hosting a secured, private polling place for your visitors to fill their ballot out on-site and leave it with you to be turned in the following day, your organization will help increase voter turnout.

To become an election polling location, find your state or local election office website and contact your County Elections Office.

If you choose to serve as a polling site, it is essential that you follow the CDC’s Considerations for Election Polling Locations and Voters. The CDC offers guidance on how to maintain healthy voting environments and operations, as well as safety recommendations for poll workers and voters.

From becoming a trusted advocate for voter engagement, to learning what election activities are permissible for you and your staff, AAM’s Nonprofit Voter Resources offers an extensive selection of available resources for use – many of which are provided by Nonprofit Vote.


As you can see, there are many ways in which your institution can become involved in democracy and better meet the civic obligation we all have to serve our people.

We encourage your museum to engage in these acts of civic responsibility. Join us in this effort and help us to amplify the voices of our communities.


The U.S. Internal Revenue Service explicitly states that private 501(c)(3) nonprofits can advocate and participate in certain voter education or registration activities and expenditures if conducted in a non-partisan manner. For more details on what is allowed, please see the American Alliance of Museum's Guide to Election Year Advocacy.


Written by Jessica Noyes, WMA Communications Coordinator

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