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Topics / Voting Rights

Don't Give Up on Democracy

Foundations are funding the right ”and the fight” to vote through donor collaboratives and litigation

North Carolina State University students wait in line to vote in the primaries on March 15, 2016—the state's first use of the voter ID law, which excluded student ID cards. (Photo: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images News)

"A wave of rulings . . . struck down or loosened voting restrictions in Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas, and North Dakota."

— Gail Ablow

In July Carnegie Corporation of New York, in collaboration with the Mertz Gilmore and Overbrook foundations, hosted a briefing on voting rights for funders. Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, launched the conversation with stories from his new book, The Fight to Vote. He was followed by advocates who are in the trenches today, defending the rights of hundreds of thousands of potential voters—in particular, minorities, the elderly, and the poor. Not long after the gathering, a wave of rulings from four federal courts, and one state court, struck down or loosened voting restrictions in Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas, and North Dakota.

Legal victories like these are hard won and expensive—and behind the scenes, philanthropy is playing an important role. Geri Mannion, program director, U.S. democracy and special opportunities Fund at Carnegie Corporation of New York and Jay Beckner, president of the Mertz Gilmore Foundation got together after the briefing for a discussion with Carnegie visiting media fellow Gail Ablow to discuss how foundations can support voting rights litigation. As the Corporation’s Mannion put it, “We should not be making voting so difficult. . . . Democracy should be about broadening the ability to vote, not narrowing it.”

Gail Ablow: What are some of the biggest voting rights challenges we are facing as a country this election year?

Mannion: This is the first presidential year following Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act. In addition, this year many states will be implementing voter ID laws—and without the preclearance protections of the Department of Justice and a lack of understanding by citizens, there may be confusion on the ground.

The Justice Department no longer has the ability to preclear election plans, such as reviewing changes in polling locations or redistricting plans. In the past you had the protections of the Voting Rights Act that would preclear changes to the laws in communities that had a history of racial bias: New York City, Chicago, places in the South—or any place with a historical pattern of voting discrimination. In the Shelby decision, the Supreme Court basically said that there are no longer these patterns of racism, so they removed the preclearance responsibility. Since then, people have taken advantage of this, both overtly and by accident. Sometimes it is an economic issue, but often it is racially biased in the implementation, if not in the intent.

Beckner: There should also be a huge voter turnout this year, so I am also concerned about equipment and staffing and choices that are being made in certain places—to not have as many polling places and to be open for fewer hours. There may also be problems with the voting machines.

Ablow: Why should foundations become involved in addressing election issues?

"We talk a lot about democracy—and what it really comes down to is: who is responsible for it?" – Geri Mannion

In “Not Left, Not Right, But Forward,” Abigail Deutsch examines the impact of Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 Supreme Court decision that in effect dismantled the Voting Rights Act, lifting protections from the regions that need them most.

Beckner: When we first started funding democracy issues, our focus was on money and politics. But after Shelby it became very clear that: 1) money in politics and voting issues are intertwined, you can’t totally separate them; and 2) the Shelby decision was so harmful and had such ramifications that we couldn’t not get involved in doing something about funding in the voting rights arena.

Voting is a nonpartisan issue. Our board—the Mertz Gilmore Foundation—wants everyone to vote. There are very positive ways to make an impact that increases voter registration, I don’t see how anybody could be against more people voting. If you are worried about voter fraud, there are a lot of positive changes being made that will clear up those issues.

Ablow: Why is it important to fund voting rights litigation?

Mannion: Litigation is important because it offers you the first opportunity to stop something bad from happening through an injunction. A lot of foundations hate litigation because they think it is a money pit. But litigation has been a very important tool. If it weren’t for the all the great legal defense funds and other litigation groups, we would be in much worse shape.

Beckner: At NEO Philanthropy there is the State Infrastructure Fund, which is a donor collaborative. It is an excellent way for a funder that doesn't know much about the issue to get going very quickly, with very few barriers to entry. You do not have to develop in-house expertise, you can join people who have been doing this for a long time, and you can do it collaboratively. We joined in 2012 and—four years later—we are still in.

"We should not be making voting so difficult."

– Geri Mannion

Mannion: To fix election administration, the State Infrastructure Fund is looking at voting rights from both a defensive posture and from an offensive posture. Our taxpayer dollars support our governments and municipal agencies to carry out elections efficiently and at low cost. And yet all these different barriers effectively increase the cost of elections, like voter IDs, for example. We should not be making voting so difficult.
One grantee that the State Infrastructure Fund and Carnegie Corporation support directly is MALDEF, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which convenes the informal voting rights litigation group, a dream team of voting rights litigators. Over ten groups have come together, they divide up the work, they make sure they know who will take which cases, in which places.

Ablow: How do donor collaboratives make it easier for a foundation to tackle voting rights litigation?

Mannion: Donor collaboratives are cost effective. If you have a limited amount of money, you’re putting it in with other funders. There is a staff that oversees the grantmaking and that ensures due diligence is done correctly. They vet the proposals and recommend a grantmaking docket. A funder's money goes a long way. You are able to leverage your funding with that of other donors, rather than having to start a whole new program yourself.

"You really have to trust the collaborative management." – Jay Beckner

Beckner: We also trust that NEO Philanthropy is able to handle the legal and administrative decision-making. If your foundation board is at all unsure of this kind of funding, you want to go with someone that you know has very smart procedures and legal people advising them. You really have to trust the collaborative management, which we do in this situation.

If a funder is more interested in supporting efforts to play defense, an excellent place to look is the Voting Rights Institute at Georgetown University. Mertz Gilmore Foundation and others helped launch it. The Georgetown University Law Center, the American Constitution Society, and the Campaign Legal Center got together to help attorneys, witnesses, law students, and the public combat discriminatory voting practices across the country.

Ablow: So donor collaboratives are very practical?

Beckner: Absolutely. 

Mannion: Jay—you’re part of the Piper Fund, a donor collaborative that works on money in politics. Carnegie Corporation of New York is also part of the Four Freedoms Fund, which focuses on building immigrant integration policy in the states. Jay has a small team. I have a small team. I would not be able to do the work I do without having these kinds of collaborations. First of all, I am learning a lot from the other donors, and I don’t have to worry about hiring a bigger staff. Also, I would not be able to fund in so many states without the good staffing of these funds.

Gail Ablow tells the story of the Immigration Project, nine state partners collaboratively for more than four years to influence the immigration debate with economic impact analysis.

Beckner: The flip side is that if you do want to staff up and grow, it is a great place to go to learn from your peers and eventually build an in-house program if that’s what you are interested in doing. You can be somewhat hands-off and still trust that great work is being done, or if you want to learn, it is a fabulous place to learn from your peers. And while you are learning a program, it makes it easier on the funding community and on the NGO community as well to work through a collaborative, rather than having all these individual groups coming to you.

Ablow: What is your advice for people who want to take a first step into funding voting rights work?

Beckner: Some foundations with more resources than we have will commission a study for a couple of years on the funding opportunities. Or they can afford to hire someone on staff who already knows the issues. But one of the ways that we approached it was to go first to a collaborative. I have always thought personal contact is the place to start. If you call just a couple of people, they will give you the five to ten key organizations that you should meet with—and you can go from there.


The State Infrastructure Fund will gladly give you peer contacts in the foundation world. All the funders I call are happy to speak to other funders who are thinking about getting into this arena, whether or not you join the fund. The Foundation Center also has a democracy mapping project. It is a democracy website that shows you which groups are being funded and by whom, and how much is being spent. Voting and voting rights are included. It is another great resource for people to begin with.

Ablow: How do you assure funders that the grantees receiving the funds are not partisan?

"I like to vote. It’s very satisfying when I hit that final button and my voice is heard. And I always think my vote matters, even when there’s a huge gap between the winner and loser. But it’s not always an easy or convenient process, as I found out June 5 in Jersey City, New Jersey." 

-- Geri Mannion on her recent voting experience and the challenges facing voting technology

Beckner: If your foundation is worried about partisanship, you can certainly fund public education on these issues—programs for young people, or programs for new citizens. There are a lot of people out there who don’t understand the way government works. You can fund that without any fear.

"Why can’t a piece of every philanthropist’s money go toward encouraging civic engagement and nonpartisan voting work?" – Jay Beckner

I am a little surprised when philanthropies don’t feel that this is a responsibility. Why can’t a piece of every philanthropist’s money go toward encouraging civic engagement and nonpartisan voting work in this country? We are worried about our young people. That they are giving up on democracy. We want to engage young people to be interested in politics and government, to get them to care and to want to be good citizens.

Mannion: Some funders think that voting rights has become partisan. I totally disagree with that idea. Lower income people, young people, people of color—they may tend to be more progressive, but not always, and not always over the long term. Latinos, for example, are both progressive and conservative. Democracy should be about broadening the ability to vote, not narrowing it. We should be figuring out ways to engage the next generation of leaders. Who is going to run for office if young people have no idea why politics is important, why government is important? How will they learn to lead?