Charity or Billions for the Left's Voter Pipeline?
The right needs to wake up to lopsided electoral funding practices.
Why does the United States have a large nonprofit sector? Most countries don’t. Why do Americans award income tax exemptions to the Red Cross, private schools, and local churches? Almost no other countries do. The answer is found in Americans’ unique view of citizenship in a representative republic, rooted in English common law and hence the Bible, the Protestant Reformation, and ancient Western thought.
The Founding Fathers may have established our limited federal government, but the American people had already put those ideas into practice themselves—starting with citizens’ committees formed to solve common concerns such as church- and family-run public education that other nations outsourced to the government. It was with this citizenship mindset in mind—one largely forgotten today—that Congress exempted America’s nonprofits at the same time it established an income tax on everyone else over a century ago.
But starting in the 1960s, leftists and their ultra-wealthy funders discovered that they could take advantage of these privileges to build a tax-free empire of advocacy groups to shape congressional policy and even Congress itself: modern Washington’s permanent activist elite. Conservatives followed suit in the 1980s, creating a network of influential think tanks and perennial lobbying groups funded by a handful of large foundations.
But there’s no question that the left dominates the field of politically active nonprofits, particularly those engaged in mass voter registration drives. Little is more American than voting. Little is less American than using tax-exempt foundations to do it.
How and Why
Common sense might suggest that foundations interested in voter turnout should bankroll get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts rather than registration campaigns to get the most bang for their buck. In fact, they fund both, but the most important part is registration.
According to a representative from one right-leaning Christian voter registration 501(c)(3) group, it costs them between $44 and $52 to register a new voter. But once registered—and, critically, once they’ve voted—those individuals tend to vote in the next two to three election cycles and often more on their own initiative. That’s six years of reliable voting for a negligible cost.
But simply mailing people a voter registration application won’t yield results—most unregistered Americans are probably disinclined to vote. A good response rate is 3 percent; 6 percent is excellent (and rare). In practice, registering 35,000 new voters in a given area through the mail means targeting 1 million unregistered people. For most groups that isn’t cost-effective or sellable to potential donors.
The solution is microtargeting. It’s relatively straightforward for nonprofits to purchase names and addresses and check their registration status in a hand-drawn area. Microtargeting techniques are extensively used by marketing companies and political campaigns to direct tailored messages to highly specific demographics. Karl Rove, perhaps the Republican Party’s most prolific registration expert, pioneered microtargeting in the 2004 election to reach voters in 18 states, with stunning results—reaching 92 percent of Bush voters in Iowa (versus 50 percent in 2000) and 84 percent in Florida (versus 50 percent in 2000).
Nonprofit VOTE, a Massachusetts-based group funded by the Ford and Tides Foundations to provide GOTV research, analyzed 180 nonprofits active in “voter engagement” in battleground states during the 2020 election. They found that those nonprofits reached over 25,000 voters—36 percent of whom hadn’t voted in either the 2016 or 2018 elections—yielding nearly 1,400 new vote-by-mail applications, 9,600 voter registrations, and 13,600 pledge-to-vote cards.
Thanks to sophisticated microtargeting techniques, “voters of color” made up 22 percent of all registered voters but 53 percent of the voters targeted by these GOTV groups. This unreached demographic is also far younger (18–24) than the typical unregistered American, with an average income of less than $30,000.
Each of these demographics was 4 to 7 percent more likely to turn out in elections after being targeted by a liberal GOTV group—potentially tens of thousands of votes, more than the margin of victory in many hard-fought states.
Registration on this scale isn’t cheap or easy, so naturally the left aims to engage as many of its organizations in voter registration as possible. Nonprofit VOTE observes:
There are just over 1.8 million nonprofits registered with the IRS . . . [including] many groups that Americans don’t normally think of as a ‘nonprofit,’ like foundations, business associations, labor unions, veterans organizations, churches, educational institutions, and others....If 20% of these remaining nonprofits do voter engagement, that translates into 170,000 voterized nonprofits....For foundations and donors, you can take steps to create space for your grantees to do voter engagement….Consider providing direct funding for such targeted work [emphasis added].
Parties or Nonprofits?
Besides their tax exemption and tax deduction for donors, 501(c)(3)s enjoy a key advantage over political committees (PACs): distance from the two parties. While Republican and Democratic National Committees struggle with many independents, nonprofits can blanket themselves in “feel-good” imagery: civic engagement, patriotism, etc.
And they have to. The IRS bars (c)(3) voter registration that would even have the effectof favoring one party over another. Private foundations may fund “public education” about candidates and elections, GOTV, and registration drives that don’t benefit one candidate over another. (There’s a third option—501(c)(4) groups, which may also endorse candidates and ballot measures, but donations to them aren’t tax-deductible.)
Theoretically, both sides would toe the same line. In practice, the left is shameless about using 501(c)(3)s to target likely Democratic voters while the Right is too afraid of losing tax exemptions to engage in much (c)(3) registration at all.
At a May 2022 U.S. Senate committee hearing on nonprofit political activities, Capital Research Center president Scott Walter recalled a conversation with Karl Rove about using PACs and nonprofits to register Republican voters:
He has done more red registration and GOTV than any person alive, much of it through 501(c)(4)s….But asked if he had ever used (c)(3) foundation money to fund, or (c)(3) public charities to execute, registration and GOTV, Rove said he never had, and seemed shocked at the thought [emphasis added].
Amazingly, Rove later clarified that he’d used only Republican committees to register voters, “never (c)(3) or (c)(4) money.”
That reluctance contrasts with the left’s reckless abandon for politicizing (c)(3)s. Nonprofit VOTE’s own case studies of foundations funding election work reveal how thin the veneer of “philanthropy” really is. It gushes that in 2017, the Fund for New Jersey “took the opportunity of an open governor’s seat and legislative elections to share research and policy ideas with candidates and policymakers,” while in Minneapolis, the Graves Foundation “didn’t want parents, families and others with a stake in public education to miss” a local school board race “for lack of knowledge of who was running and issues at stake.” (One wonders about the Graves Foundation’s stake in that election’s outcome.)
In the 2021 California governor’s recall, the California Donor Table Fund advised foundations on how they “can engage their grantees and the communities they support around the recalls” by funding “communities of color” and “those that are typically underrepresented in off-cycle elections” because “California’s democracy is under threat.”
The right-leaning Christian group I spoke with explained that the left is far more sophisticated in targeting likely voters than the right. Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight group, for instance, allegedly asks Georgians about which issues interest them as part of the registration process, a huge red flag for partisanship (that, and her own status as a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the state).
“We don’t do that,” he said. Instead, his organization gathers only the names and addresses of potential Evangelical voters. “I know for a fact we’ve registered both Democrats and Republicans,” he added. One suspects Abrams couldn’t say the same.
Left-wing funders are surely seeing these results before they cut checks. An internal memo by the secretive Democratic turnout group Mind the Gap, which connects Silicon Valley donors to key congressional races, advises:
The most effective tactic in a Presidential year by a wide margin is nonpartisan voter registration focused on underrepresented groups in our electoral process. Provided that such efforts are well-designed and executed, on a pre-tax basisthey are 2 to 5 times more cost-effective at netting additional Democratic votes than the tactics that campaigns will invest in (chiefly, broadcast media and digital buys). Because 90 percent of the contributions we are recommending for voter registration and GOTV efforts will go to 501(c)(3) organizations and hence are tax deductible, on an after-tax basis such programs are closer to 4 to 10 times more cost effective than the next best alternative. They are also eligible recipients of donations from donor-advised funds and private foundations [emphasis added].
The memo equates “nonpartisan voter registration” with “netting Democratic votes”—the very thing the IRS instructs nonprofits to avoid. It concludes, “The most effective investment that Democrats can make in the 2020 elections is in early voter registration, targeting minorities and other underrepresented groups in the ‘rising American electorate.’” Notably, the shadowy Democracy Alliance, which represents almost every major funder on the left, also considers the Rising American Majority “central to progressive long-term success.”
Mind the Gap suggests two “nonpartisan” nonprofits targeting this vote-rich strata: the (c)(3) Voter Participation Center and (c)(4) Center for Voter Information, which sent millions of mail-in ballot applications to voters across battleground states in the 2020 election and again in Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial race.
The Voter Participation Center boasts that it’s “dedicated to increasing the share of unmarried women, people of color, Millennials, Gen Z, and other historically under-represented groups in the electorate.” In 2012, liberal journalist Sasha Issenberg spelled out the obvious: “Even though the [Voter Participation Center] was officially nonpartisan, for tax purposes, there was no secret that the goal of all its efforts was to generate new votes for Democrats” (emphasis added).
Leftists deceive when they pretend that this is about helping Americans vote and righting past wrongs. These reports are Democratic GOTV strategy guides with the word “nonpartisan” slapped on for cover. This is really about microtargeting certain demographics and localities that will contribute to Democratic victories—exactly what the IRS prohibits tax-exempt nonprofits from doing. And mega-donors are willing to throw multi-million-dollar grants at this project because they know it’ll reap billions in policy outcomes.
Cogs in the Machine
We traced the finances and funders of 24 top voter registration nonprofits. Together, these organizations spent roughly $434 million in 2020 alone. Not all of this money went to election work, but it gives a sense of the scale of this vast machine.
That machine includes Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight Action, the Black Voters Matter Fund, and Rock the Vote. State Voices moves money to affiliates juicing Democratic turnout in 22 states. America Votes, the self-styled “coordination hub of the progressive community,” is funded by the Arabella Advisors’ “dark money” empire to provide leftists with GOTV data. The Voter Registration Project poured over $116 million in grants into state-level GOTV groups for the 2016, 2018, and 2020 elections.
And Majority Forward—which pumped $1.7 million into Georgia’s 2021 special Senate election, securing the Democrats’ Senate majority—is affiliated with the partisan Senate Majority PAC. Majority Forward “alone accounted for about $1 of every $3 in dark money spending in 2018,” according to the left-leaning group Issue One.
Altogether, the foundations bankrolling these groups have channeled $461 million into them over roughly the past decade. The biggest contributor is the Ford Foundation, which doled out at least $41.5 million to voter registration nonprofits. Other notables are the Proteus Fund and Tides Foundation, both “dark money” pass-throughs whose original donors are often unknown; the Susan Thompson Buffett, W.K. Kellogg, Wyss, Arca, and Bauman Foundations; and the Carnegie Corporation.
Many of these groups’ contributions were routed through donor-advised fund providers—a kind of charitable investment account—obscuring the original donors’ names. The Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund funneled $140 million to voter registration groups on our list in this way—along with the National Philanthropic Trust, San Francisco Foundation, Schwab Charitable Fund, and Silicon Valley Community Foundation. We’ll likely never know who supplied that money.
Integrated Voter Engagement Model
Registering and turning out millions of new voters takes time and money—lots of it. One of the most powerful organizations coordinating this effort is the Funders Committee for Civic Participation, which assembles over 100 liberal funders and pass-through groups for exactly that purpose. Notables include Arabella Advisors, the Ford Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, Pierre Omidyar’s Democracy Fund, and the National Education Association.
The Funders Committee doesn’t move money itself. Like the Democracy Alliance (also a member) it coordinates affiliates to fund a common goal. The scale of resources this network commands is impressive: In 2020 alone its members spent about $11.5 billion in combined total expenditures—a near-limitless well of money.
The Funders Committee isn’t shy about its goal of effecting “democratic change” by funding groups focused on potent “civic engagement strategies.” Its “theory of impact” involves shuffling money to “democracy groups” advancing “structural reforms” to obtain “power.” An older rendition of the theory was even starker: registering and turning out voters to “hold elected officials accountable” and “achieve policy impact.” The Funders Committee expanded the theory in 2017 to include “defend + expand voting rights.”
The Funders Committee calls its model one of “the most effective ways to increase voter turnout,” claiming multiple victories in the 2000s that helped turn Colorado from a red to purple state. Recall that the bulk of the committee’s members are foundations barred from intervening in elections. In practice, this means boosting registration among Democrats to take over state legislatures, augmenting blue state turnout in each census, and manipulating the redistricting process, during which states redraw their congressional and legislative maps for partisan gain.
The census determines how many congressional seats each state receives and consequently its share of Electoral College votes. By boosting census turnout in places like California and New York, the Funders Committee helped limit the number of Democratic seats lost to red states like Texas and Florida, the goal of its “2020 Funders Census Initiative.” As early as 2013, the group called for an “aggressive”2020 get-out-the-count campaign—aping “get-out-the-vote” drives—in Democratic states. “It is vital that grantmakers get involved,” it opined. “The Census Bureau can’t do it alone.”
Democratic officials applauded the effort. Then-Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota assured attendees of the group’s 2015 conference just how important the census is in “determining how many seats in Congress are allocated.”
I know you’re working hard to make sure that the upcoming 2020 Census goes smoothly, and gives a clear, accurate snapshot of our country. I commend your foresight—the census is very important and it’s critical for us to get ready now, even though the census is still a few years away.
Meanwhile, affiliates like the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and National Congress of American Indians conducted message testing on minority groups to determine census response rates. Color of Change, for example, ran messages targeting black communities with this message:
President Trump has actively worked to put down the Black vote and reduce outreach to Black communities for healthcare enrollment, and he will do the same when it comes to Black people taking part in the Census.
The strategy worked. Although many blue states lost congressional seats in 2022, the Census Bureau admitted in June—after states had finalized their new maps—that it’d miscounted14 states: Overcounting Democratic strongholds like Minnesota, New York, Hawaii, and Massachusetts while undercounting the Republican-run states of Mississippi, Texas, Florida, Arkansas, and Tennessee (and Democratic Illinois).
The Funders Committee had a big year in 2020, but it has been involved in this work since 2005 (and likely earlier), per a strategy memo for future GOTV operations. “Voters, particularly those from disenfranchised communities, need to see that voting translates into collective power and impact,” the report found, so funders should fund “pre-tested messages focused largely on empowerment” aimed at “unmarried women and minorities” and use paid canvassers (not volunteers) to get out the vote.
Does this sound problematic for a tax-exempt foundation? It should. A follow-up report in 2006 conceded that “funders sometimes are concerned about support of civic/voter engagement because they are political and therefore can be perceived as partisan.” (Note the attempt to show how registration drives can be political without also being partisan.)
Ditto a 2019 discussion of the Integrated Voter Engagement model by the University of Southern California, which admits that “some funders may shy away from electoral work for being too political. After all, partisan politics and GOTV efforts are usually about running candidates and passing propositions.” Their solution: If enough foundations do it, we can all get away with it!
Given the IRS’s reluctance to thump foundations for politicking, they’re probably correct. The 2020 election only whetted the left’s appetite for partisan “philanthropy.” Many will recall Time’s infamous February 2021 article, “The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election,” which praised the “conspiracy” of nonprofits that put Joe Biden in the White House. One of the chief culprits was the Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL), which used $350 million from Mark Zuckerberg to effectively privatize the election in electoral hotspots in battleground states.
Saving Democracy or Democrats?
Powerful leftists might have viewed unseating President Donald Trump as a cause worth pouring any amount of money into, but one suspects that they’re less inclined to do so for all future elections indefinitely. Welcome to the ugly world of election “reforms” designed to get the federal government to subsidize or achieve what mega-donors currently supply.
Targeting Minors. The far-left Center for Popular Democracy supports pre-registering 16-year-olds when they apply for driver’s licenses or enroll in high schools civics courses, “automatically adding them to the voter rolls when they turn 18.” The Funders Committee would have states adopt faculty-run voter registration programs at high schools, advising them to include “student leaders…as students are influenced by their peers.” Sound problematic? In February 2021, New York Democrat Rep. Grace Meng introduced a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to 16, with praise from Rock the Vote and other advocacy groups.
Automatic and Same-Day Registration. Until it shut down in 2017, the ACORN spin-off Project Vote wanted to let individuals register to vote on Election Day. Going further, why not use the long arm of government to automatically register every warm body in the country? That’s the goal of the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, a front for Arabella Advisors’ $1.7 billion “dark money” empire, which has lobbied for these “reforms” across the states.
Permanent Vote by Mail. In 2020, the Democratic Party overcame decades-old (and well-founded) reservations about mail-in ballots thanks to Covid-19 and the influence of the National Vote at Home Coalition. In many states, Democratic officials’ last-minute changes to voting laws effectively made 2020 the country’s first all-mail election.
The U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, headed by the CTCL, is spending $80 million to get the federal government to spend billions on paper ballots—the main ingredient for mail-in ballots—by claiming a national paper shortage. Demos, the think tank of the radical left, proposes Congress allocate $5 billion to transform the U.S. Postal Service into a mail-in ballot collection machine. Similarly, the Democrats’ failed For the People Act (H.R. 1) would have mandated states provide CTCL-style drop boxes to collect mail-in ballots, really a vote of no confidence in the ability of the Postal Service to not lose them in the mail. These policies would build on automatic voter registration policies, that would practically mail a ballot to every U.S. citizen.
Text-to-Cure. Voters routinely make mistakes when filling out mail-in ballots. They’re innocuous—but efforts by partisan ballot-counters to correct those errors are not. In 2020, Colorado adopted TXT2Cure (“text to cure”), which enabled election officials to ask voters to correct erroneous ballots via smartphone text message by November 12—two days after the 2020 election. See any problems? The NAACP doesn’t, which is why the local chapter’s leadership has called such voter errors “disenfranchisement,” as if recording a mistake on a ballot is the equivalent to Jim Crow laws (or the American public’s fault!). This is also the position of the Democratic Party: Their For the People Act (H.R. 1) would’ve forced states to allow ballot curing “either in-person, by telephone, or by electronic methods.”
Restore Felon Voting Rights. Google searches for “felon voting rights” return the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Nonprofit VOTE, Campaign Legal Center, and the Sentencing Project, all liberal lobbying groups. Enfranchising felons—who lost their right to vote for our laws when they broke them—is a hot topic on the left. The Movement for Black Lives considers the “enfranchisement of formerly and currently incarcerated people” (emphasis added) central to its “vision for black lives.” (It also includes voting rights for “undocumented people,” non-citizens residing in the country illegally.)
This list is far from exhaustive, but it paints a stark picture of what the activist left would do to America if permitted.
The foundations that stand behind them use more decorous language to illustrate the same thing. For instance, the Ford Foundation praised New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) felon voting rights restoration bill in 2018 as an “important step forward for criminal justice reform, for voting rights, [and] for racial justice.” Pierre Omidyar’s Democracy Fund considers vote by mail the future of voting in America. And the Rockefeller Family Fund aims to enact “legislation to provide automatic and permanent registration to all voters.”
Again, these tax-exempt foundations are supposedly engaged in charity.
Ironically, many of these same funders paid for a famous 2005 report that denounced all of these measures and more, authored by James Baker III, who served as Ronald Reagan’s treasury secretary and chief of staff, and former President Jimmy Carter.
The bipartisan Baker-Carter Commission report still stands as a monument to how to run free, fair, transparent elections, which makes it all the sadder that today’s leftists bitterly oppose everything the report proposed. Most powerfully, it concluded that vote-by-mail schemes don’t increase turnout (a liberal shibboleth) and are among the most fraud-prone policies a nation can adopt, which is why nearly all developed countries have severely restricted or banned the practice.
That report was partially funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ford Foundation, Knight Foundation, and the Omidyar Network. All of them now fund advocacy groups that oppose every measure endorsed by the Baker-Carter Commission. Given enough time, Progressivism always eats itself.
How Should Conservatives React?
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If voting is inherently political (and it is), getting out the vote is as well. And there is no better way to corrupt philanthropy than by politicizing it. At the risk of drawing too eschatological a picture, ideally no one—government or tax-exempt group—should fund voter registration drives.
If restoring a genuine, useful charitable sector is a goal then we must admit that neither side ought to engage in activities that threaten the biblical principle of philanthropy: loving one’s neighbor in Christlike fashion. If Americans reestablish that, the blessings of a restored nonprofit world will flow to non-Christians, too, which is part of that commandment’s purpose. Yet that state of affairs lies far in the future, and it will only be reached by thinking strategically and generationally. In short, we fight today’s battles with the means at hand.
Today, if conservatives want to stop the left, they must beat “progressives” at their own game. It’s only once the right outdoes the left at educating, registering, and turning out new voters using microtargeting and other sophisticated techniques paid for by foundations that leftists will abandon it altogether. Until then, it’s a one-sided battle—and conservatives are losing it.