Funding the Voter Participation Spectrum

This piece originally appeared at Philanthropy News Digest.

The fiercely contested American presidential election of 2000 laid bare the different ways in which voters can be disenfranchised: faulty voting machines, poor ballot design, uncounted ballots, and needless barriers to voter registration, to name a few. And, of course, the winner of the election wasn't determined by ballot but by the U.S. Supreme Court a month after the election itself.

In the decade and a half since, voting rights advocates, funders, and various elected officials have promoted reforms that make it easier to register and cast a ballot. These well-intentioned actors are operating under a classic economic theory: if we lower the costs associated with a transaction (i.e., voting), more people will avail themselves of it. But is it that simple? My research supports the theory — new, more accessible ways to register and vote do indeed have a positive impact on voter participation, but only to a point. And election reform is only one step in a continuum of activities that must take place if voter participation is to increase, especially among current non-voters.

Putting this into action requires a new way of thinking about funding. More than ever, it means we need to think about increasing voter turnout as a coordinated process — with the passage of inclusive, pro-voter reform as just one step in that process, not the ending point. The crucial steps that funders and the organizations they fund must be aware of and integrate into a holistic strategy if they hope to really boost turnout include:

  • Researching the most effective reforms and activities for increasing participation;
  • Educating voters and organizations about why voting is important and how it relates to issues that affect them, the voting process, and the availability of new methods of participation (i.e., early voting) and how to make use of them;
  • Organizing and mobilizing people at the state and local level to actively take advantage of new, more accessible voting options;
  • Pursuing legal strategies to ensure that the right to vote is upheld in every jurisdiction; and
  • Sustaining voter engagement into the future as younger generations reach voting age.

What's more, these steps cannot be treated as discrete activities by those interested in promoting and advancing voting rights, including funders.

Foundation Center recently launched an updated version of its Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool that shows how much has gone to various democracy-related activities since 2011. As I took the tool for a test drive, I noticed that a number of large foundations do fund the full spectrum of activities necessary to increase voter turnout. That includes funding voting rights litigation, efforts to boost voter registration and participation among underrepresented populations, high-level research, policy reform, election reform advocacy and litigation, and grassroots organizing work. But while more of this kind of funding is needed, the work must be implemented in a coordinated fashion, and funders should consider directing more of their funding to state-level activities (i.e., organizations focused on increasing turnout in their own states).

Large foundations that fund state-based organizations do so at a much smaller scale compared to their funding for national organizations. And while some of the latter do have state affiliates, we mustn't overlook the importance of state-based groups, which often work at the grassroots level and tend to be staffed by people who know the communities in which these efforts are focused.

Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy illustrates some of the major gaps in this regard. For example, only about $620,000 has gone to state-based "campaigns, elections, and voting" work in Ohio since 2011. (The data in the tool is not yet comprehensive and data will be added on a weekly basis.) While this figure should be taken with a grain of salt, it is nevertheless surprising. After all, Ohio has been the epicenter of voting rights battles over the last decade and a half. On the other side of the ledger, it is interesting to note, given North Carolina's past success in boosting voter turnout, that more than $5 million has been awarded to state-based organizations there since 2011.

The funding data in the tool, as well as my own research, underscores another area that appears to be underresourced: targeted, strategic research on efforts to improve turnout. As it stands, we don't know enough about the kinds of legal and policy changes or mobilization techniques that boost turnout among people of color, young people, and people with low incomes. A growing number of experimental studies (like this one and this one), point to promising developments and warrant further exploration. The Hewlett Foundation stands out in this respect, having made a number of recent grants for this type of research. (Other funders may also be engaged in funding experimental research but without expressly stating it in their grant descriptions; there's no way to know.) Given the significant gaps in participation according to income, race, and ethnicity, however, these challenges must be addressed with more targeted and comprehensive data.

While funders clearly are moving toward funding the full spectrum of measures needed to revitalize American democracy, additional funding is needed. Funders in this space also should be drivers of greater organizational collaboration and should redouble their efforts to bring grantees with different capacities together under a single funding umbrella to execute this complex and important work.