The Role of Philanthropy in Protecting American Democracy

There is a new urgency today for American philanthropies to protect the right to vote for all eligible citizens. The philanthropic community has worked alongside the government to protect these rights for decades, but since a 2013 Supreme Court ruling eliminated key parts of the Voting Rights Act, there has been a dramatic increase across the country in barriers to voting. These new barriers often disproportionately affect low-income voters, rural voters, communities of color, young people, and people with disabilities.

American philanthropies now have an opportunity to protect and strengthen U.S. democracy by providing badly needed investments in the country’s voting infrastructure, paying attention to these issues beyond election time, and joining with others to support litigation against illegal voting barriers.

How Philanthropy Can Help

INVEST IN CORE SUPPORT AND INFRASTRUCTURE. Since the 2013 Shelby County vs. Holder ruling opened space for new voter suppression efforts, organizations working on voting rights have faced unprecedented pressure. They monitor elections, support targeted populations, advocate for voter friendly policies, and bring legal action when needed. To continue to effectively tackle their mission, these organizations need to strengthen their staffing, infrastructure, and technology. They also need expanded support to collaborate with those at the local, state, and national levels.

DON’T THINK ABOUT THESE ISSUES ONLY AT ELECTION TIME. Voter protection is a year-round issue every year. Groups need sustained, multiyear funding so they are ready for every election and the years in between. In fact, the in-between years are often when state and local efforts aim to quietly weaken or remove voter protections without an election-driven public or media spotlight. What’s more, hiring organizers and staffing up for elections only to let people go right after is an inefficient cycle that hinders potential results for many groups.

SUPPORT LITIGATION. Litigation groups have successfully challenged countless new restrictions in recent years, protecting the voting rights of eligible Americans that are people of color, younger, from rural areas, or reflect other underrepresented groups. Litigation has proven its worth as a critical tool for protecting voting rights—but it is expensive. Groups filing strong cases need data, technology, expert witnesses, and experienced attorneys. Legal issues around a fair and accurate 2020 census may strain these groups, and more support will be needed to help strengthen our foundational democratic institutions.

SUPPORT COLLABORATION, INCLUDING AMONG FUNDERS. Grantmakers can trigger unhealthy competition among voting rights groups when they set out to “pick winners” and when they emphasize and reward grantees’ stand-alone victories. Voting rights organizations get better, more sustainable results when they work together. Equally, funders should “walk the walk” and work together to align their investments and broaden their impact. For example, the State Infrastructure Fund has become a powerful venue for funders to come together and collaboratively develop their understanding of the issue and support the movement.


10 Tools to protect the vote

Over the years, advocates for voting rights have employed a variety of tools and strategies to advance and protect the votes of all Americans. These include:

  1. Litigation: Litigation has become a critical tool in combating voter suppression, which has been on the rise since the 2013 Supreme Court ruling gutting the Voting Rights Act. Voting rights organizations have successfully used legal challenges to fight discriminatory voter disenfranchisement.
  2. Advocacy: In addition to fighting voter suppression, voting rights advocates have also pushed for and won pro-voter policies and practices, ranging from voting technologies to ballot design to language access.
  3. Voter Registration: Being registered to vote makes people much more likely to do so, yet less than two-thirds of eligible voters in the country are registered. Local, state, and national groups are trying to make the registration process easier, especially for members of historically underrepresented groups.
  4. Nonpartisan Voter Education: Educating voters is just as important as registering them. Groups are working to make sure prospective voters know where and when to vote, including understanding early voting and absentee ballots. They are also providing key information on the issues at stake through nonpartisan voter guides.
  5. Get-Out-the-Vote Drives: Organizations across the United States have a rich history of organizing get-out-the-vote (GOTV) drives to get people to the polls on Election Day, many of them tied to specific candidates or issues. Groups like the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote also mount nonpartisan GOTV drives to mobilize underrepresented populations.
  6. Election Assistance: Many organizations assist specific groups of voters, such as people with disabilities or language minorities, in exercising their right to vote via targeted websites and telephone hotlines. They also provide personalized voting information about poll locations, registration deadlines, and more.
  7. Organizing: Like any other social justice issue, it takes people power to advance and protect voting rights. In communities and states across the country, door-to-door canvases, rallies, and community events are enlisting more people to fight voter suppression and help expand the franchise.
  8. Election Monitoring: Elections in the U.S. are primarily administered at the local level by counties, cities, and towns. In order to ensure all voters are treated fairly and in accordance with the law, voting rights groups monitor elections and report problems ranging from long lines to broken machines to insufficient support for people with special needs.
  9. Research and Data Gathering: The voting rights movement needs data and research to help spotlight issues that merit attention and action. Voting rights groups are gathering data on everything from polling place closures and purges of voter lists to the experiences of different populations at the polls — data that will then inform action to expand access to voting.
  10. Communications: Advancing voting rights at the local, state, and national levels requires communications savvy to break through the noise and help people understand how to register and vote, as well as what’s at stake. Organizations are developing and disseminating messages via social media and the local news to mobilize targeted populations.