How Foundations Are Supporting Voting Rights

visual of Foundation Funding for US Democracy tool

This post originally appeared on PhilanTopic as part of a series about U.S. democracy and civil society.

The last five years have seen a tug-of-war over the future of our democracy. At odds are forces that want to restrict access to political participation and others who seek to open it in hopes of increasing the number of Americans who cast ballots. After the 2010 election, the war on voting rights intensified with the adoption of laws that curbed participation through voter ID laws in a number of states and cutbacks on early voting opportunities in others. The Supreme Court further complicated the picture by putting money over people in its Citizens Uniteddecision and dealing a blow to the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, which made it easier for states to engage in voter suppression tactics impacting voters of color. At the same time, while some states were rolling back the clock on voting rights and democracy, others were pushing through reforms such as online and same-day voter registration aimed at modernizing their voting systems.

As the battle rages on, nonprofits, think tanks, and universities have received substantial funding from foundations in support of their efforts to advance democracy in America. Foundation Center’s new tool, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, indicates that foundations made grants of almost $299 million between 2011 and 2014 in the campaigns, elections, and voting category, which  includes support for implementation, research, reform, and/or mobilizations efforts related to campaign finance, election administration, redistricting, voting access, as well as voter registration, education, and turnout. More than half those grant dollars went for voter registration, education, and turnout initiatives, and, as one might expect, the annual total spiked in 2012, a presidential election year, as did funding for voting rights efforts.

This is information that everyone should pay attention to. In the voting rights and election administration arenas, we often raise concerns that funding for our efforts tends to be cyclical whereas our work is anything but. The data in the center’s tool indicates that as the campaign to roll back voting rights intensified in 2011, support for the field was meager, leaving American voters vulnerable to voter suppression efforts. In contrast, in 2012, an election year, foundations significantly increased their support for such efforts, from $5.3 million to $29 million. Unfortunately, scarce resources in so-called “off years” left voters vulnerable because advocates lacked full capacity to litigate, advocate, and educate. Past and recent history make it clear that voting rights is not an election-cycle issue and cannot be ignored during non-election years, lest we slip back into old ways and attitudes.  

Clearly, some foundations understand this. The Foundation Center’s tool reveals that the Ford and Open Society foundations have been leaders in supporting efforts to protect and extend voting rights, while a relatively new funder, the JPB Foundation, has moved quickly to assist. Nor did foundations shy away from funding an important tactic in protecting our democracy – litigation. From 2011 to 2014, grants of nearly $30 million were earmarked for voting rights-related litigation, which is absolutely needed as a check on partisan manipulation of election laws by various state legislatures. In the face of these efforts, foundations simultaneously supported election administration efforts seeking to modernize our election system, increasing their investment in such reforms from $1.7 million in 2011 to $9.4 million in 2013. These efforts are paying off with wins in states such as Colorado, Oregon, and others, where laws have been passed increasing access to the ballot box through mail-in ballots, automatic voter registration, and other mechanisms. Still, as history reminds us — and foundations well know — we must always be vigilant and ready to defend government of the people, by the people, and for the people. 

headshot photo of Judith Browne Dianis

JUDITH BROWNE DIANIS, co-director of Advancement Project, is a civil rights attorney who has practiced in the areas of voting rights, education, housing, and employment and has served as counsel in major cases under the Voting Rights Act. Advancement Project's Voter Protection Program has challenged voter identification laws in Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Wyoming and is counsel for the North Carolina NAACP in its challenge of North Carolina's omnibus voter suppression law, which was passed in 2013. You can follow her on Twitter at @jbrownedianis.