Democracy Alliance Blog / April 19, 2016

2020 Funds Update: The Democracy Fund

By DA Managing Director Julie Kohler and Strategy and Planning Manager Shehn Datta

Over the course of the last year, the Democracy Alliance has solidified its funding strategy for countering the Right’s voter suppression efforts. Under the guidance of our new Democracy Fund’s Advisory Board, we have consulted with leading policy experts and activists, surveyed the funding landscape, and conducted a deep-dive review of the DA’s priority states.

The Right is unrelenting in its efforts to systematically deny millions of Americans – particularly the New American Majority – access to the ballot. Seventeen states will have new voting restrictions in place for November’s election – voter ID, cuts to early voting, and voter registration restrictions – and states like North Carolina have eliminated other pro-voting reforms like same-day registration and pre-registration for 16 and 17-year olds. The recent primary debacle in Arizona, where Maricopa County voters waited in egregiously long lines – some for more than five hours – was no accident. It was an intentional ploy by conservative legislators to prevent voters, particularly low-income Latino voters, from showing up at the polls and having their voices heard.

And yet the best offense is sometimes just that – a good offense. For years, we have been fighting the Right on their terms, struggling to fend off one attack on voting rights after the other. Rarely have progressives been able to turn this issue around and fight for the structural reforms that do something that’s wildly popular with the American public – make voting easier.

Offense, therefore, is the Democracy Fund’s primary strategy. And our first round of grants, approved last month, is designed to complement the excellent policy, litigation, and technical assistance work that DA-recommended organizations like the Advancement Project, the Brennan Center for Justice and Demos are doing by helping get resources to the grassroots – setting the stage for campaigns that will expand the electorate in several key states and fight these battles on our terms. By enacting automatic voter registration (AVR), we will add millions of voters to the rolls and save millions of dollars on voter registration each cycle. And by enfranchising those who have lost the right to vote due to a prior criminal conviction, we can address one of the manifestations of our criminal justice system’s structural racism – the fact that 1 out of every 13 Black Americans is currently ineligible to vote.

To be sure, the campaigns that we’re betting on are not short-term victories. Some will not be waged until 2017, 2018, or beyond. But in order to ensure that the campaigns are smart, strategic, and well-run, we are investing early, leveraging support from allied funders, and helping local organizations do the planning, polling, research, and municipal-level work that can lay the groundwork for significant state victories.

The fund’s initial $330,000 in seed funding is supporting organizations working to:

  • Ensure that AVR remains the “gold standard” by implementing it well in Oregon. In 2015, Oregon paved the way for the nation when it enacted AVR; now, the task at hand is to educate, motivate, and engage these new voters who recently became registered to vote through their interaction with the Department of Motor Vehicles. The fund’s support is helping the local coalition document best practices for reaching these newly registered voters, assess the impact these voters will have on the election, and compare and contrast the impact of AVR-registration against traditional registration practices, ensuring that we have a strong evidence-base to guide other states’ work.
  • Lay the groundwork for successful AVR ballot initiatives in key “purple” states. In Arizona, the fund is supporting a grassroots campaign designed to raise public awareness around AVR and make progress in the legislature and prepare for a possible ballot measure as a means of advancing AVR in 2018. In New Mexico, coalition partners are working to introduce AVR bills in the 2017 legislative session, as a first step to a state constitutional amendment. Their organizing and earned media work also provides opportunities to contrast the starkly different voter access positions of the two candidates running for an open Secretary of State race this fall.
  • Pass AVR in Virginia via a three-pronged strategy. Advocates in Virginia have approached AVF through multiple strategies: winning it at the municipal level in Fairfax, the state’s most populous county, working behind the scenes with the administration to craft the technical back-end that would make state-wide implementation possible, and laying the groundwork for a state legislative campaign in 2017.
  • Develop a campaign plan for a rights restoration constitutional amendment in Florida. The best path for re-enfranchising 1.8 million citizens that cannot vote due to a prior felony conviction is via direct citizen action at the ballot. Florida has some of the harshest felony disenfranchisement restrictions in the country, with 10% of the state’s voting age population – including 23% of the voting-age Black population – rendered permanently ineligible to vote. Community organizations have come together to develop a detailed plan to advance this reform through a constitutional amendment.

Our funding is a modest start – a drop in the bucket of what’s needed to win the ambitious reforms we’ve outlined above, and to take those fights to the next set of states, like Colorado, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, where there are real opportunities to win in 2017. So we’re working hard to raise additional resources for a second round of grantmaking later this year. But we don’t necessarily need tens of millions to make a difference. The fund is already helping serve as a “center of gravity,” building awareness of emerging campaigns and helping unite funders around a strategic set of campaign plans. Through pooled, aligned, and highly leveraged investment, we think there are real opportunities to transform the American electorate, making the work of other DA funds, like the State Engagement Initiative (SEI), which seeks to take-back progressive power in the states, significantly easier. Consequently, we’re working closely with SEI and the other DA 2020 State Funds, investing in well-vetted organizations with a proven track record of success and ensuring that our plans are aligned. Our work is just getting started, but we have big plans for the future.