Donors Worry About a Cash Crunch for Voter Registration Groups

People close to the groups, which had a big infusion of money in 2020, fear they might have to begin scaling back their programs.

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Donors Worry About a Cash Crunch for Voter Registration Groups |

In 2020, foundations and private donors poured millions into democracy-related projects, including voter registration. But now some of that money may be drying up.

Several nonprofit groups that work to register voters are privately sounding the alarm about their finances, warning donors that they will have to begin scaling back their programs just as the country enters the homestretch of the midterm elections.

It is a critical time. Today is National Voter Registration Day, and deadlines to register are fast approaching. In four states — Minnesota, South Dakota, Virginia and Wyoming — early voting begins at the end of this week.

More established groups that have worked on voter registration for years have anticipated the cutbacks, knowing the traditional rhythms of lower-stakes midterm elections, and have planned accordingly. But other, newer organizations that sprung up amid a flood of donor interest during the 2020 election cycle have struggled to adapt to the changing circumstances.

“To the extent that any organizations working on voter registration anywhere in the country are having issues getting fully funded for this cycle, I find that extremely concerning,” said Bruce Cohen, a Democratic donor and activist. “I would ask other potential donors — if not now, when?”

The main targets of complaints among voter registration groups are the Democracy Fund, a foundation bankrolled by Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of eBay; and the Open Society Foundations, the global philanthropy organization founded by the billionaire investor George Soros.

Donor advisers said in interviews that the Democracy Fund and O.S.F. created the expectation that millions of dollars would be forthcoming for democracy-related programs in 2022, only to disappoint many of the would-be recipients months later.

According to an email shared with The New York Times, branches of the two groups invited potential donors to the introduction of “the Roadmap for American Democracy” in June.

“We will need to mobilize more than a billion dollars to uphold the integrity of our election process and ensure diverse, equitable participation,” the email read.

The Open Society Foundations is going through a tumultuous transition period. As Soros has entered his 90s, he has handed over authority to his son Alex. Last year, my colleague Nicholas Kulish reported that the group had abruptly scaled back its giving worldwide as part of a “restructuring plan.”

Press officers for O.S.F. denied that the organization had made promises it had not kept.

“Our thought was that we were talking to donors over a longer period of time,” said Laleh Ispahani, a co-director of the Open Society Foundations’ U.S.-focused programs who has worked to enlist other donors. “We were always clear that you’re not saving democracy in a single election. That is a longer-term project.”

With the primaries over, both parties are shifting their focus to the general election on Nov. 8.

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She said O.S.F. had already invested $40 million to $75 million in 2022 for programs related to democracy and voting rights. “We will never retreat from this space,” she said. “This is our bread and butter.”

A representative for the Democracy Fund did not respond to a request for comment.

“O.S.F. came through for us in a big way,” said Nse Ufot, the chief executive of the New Georgia Project, which was instrumental in registering tens of thousands of voters of color before Democrats’ victories in 2020 and early 2021.

But, she added: “What we are seeing is an overall dip in fund-raising” to the broader coalition of groups that helped her group turn Georgia into a blue state through grass-roots community organizing and voter registration. “Folks who think Georgia is competitive do not understand what made Georgia competitive.”

One reason for the funding difficulties is the hangover from 2020, when foundations and private donors poured millions into democracy-related projects, including voter registration. The Senate elections in Georgia in early 2021, along with Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential results, poured jet fuel on those efforts.

“Donors got energized by the threat to democracy,” said a person who advises wealthy people on their political contributions and who insisted on anonymity. The person described a feeling of exhaustion among the donor class: “People left it all on the field.”

At times, those efforts have blurred the line between neutral, nonprofit work and partisan advantage. An analysis by Ken Vogel and Shane Goldmacher of The New York Times, for instance, found that “15 of the most politically active nonprofit organizations that generally align with the Democratic Party spent more than $1.5 billion in 2020.”

At the time, they reported, Democrats were “warning major donors not to give in to the financial complacency that often afflicts the party in power.”

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It’s not fully clear whether the complacency they feared has now arrived, or whether only certain groups have been disproportionally affected. Several people closely involved with the Democratic Party’s voter-registration plans said they were not aware of a systemic crisis.

Among the groups affected, people familiar with their internal finances said, were the Voter Formation Project, which describes its mission as “increasing participation in local, state and national elections through digital communication, experimentation and knowledge sharing.” Tatenda Musapatike, the head of the Voter Formation Project, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

But another reason for the budget shortfalls, people familiar with the situation said, was the sour state of the economy, which has led to belt-tightening across corporate America and in the world of institutional investors — including ones that regularly fund efforts like voter registration that are considered nonpartisan and politically safe.

As On Politics reported in January, Republicans have begun to close the gap with Democrats in voter registration in major battleground states, including Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, the Democrats’ advantage in registrations shrank to 540,000 as of today, from 685,000 as of November 2020, according to an analysis by Politico.

In 2020, the pandemic disrupted the party’s two main pathways for bringing in new voters: sign-ups at the Department of Motor Vehicles and face-to-face field work. Democratic candidates and party committees cut sharply back on door-knocking campaigns, while Republicans largely maintained their in-person canvassing programs.

An analysis shared with The New York Times by Catalist, a Democratic data firm, showed that in 2020, the Democrats’ traditional edge in voter registration shrank to nine percentage points across 29 states — down from a 19-point advantage over Republicans in 2008.

This year, as the pandemic has waned, groups aligned with Democrats, including unions and the League of Conservation Voters, have revived their field programs. And a surge of anger on the left and among young people over the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion has led to an accompanying rise in new registrations for Democrats.

But top Democrats have quietly discussed for months how to address what some officials see as a broader problem with the way the party handles voter registration.

Traditionally, Democrats have relied on a mix of official, partisan voter registration drives conducted by state parties and candidates as well as outreach by nonprofit groups that are legally prohibited from targeting communities by their expected party affiliation.

As Republicans have made gains, however — most notably in Florida, where the G.O.P. now has a registration edge of around 200,000 voters — senior Democrats have begun to question whether the party ought to bring more of those officially nonpartisan voter-registration campaigns in-house.

For the 2022 cycle, the Democratic National Committee is spending nearly $25 million on its “I Will Vote” initiative, which includes voter protection, legal challenges and voter registration in battleground states, focused on communities of color and college campuses. The voter registration component of the program began with an initial investment of nearly $5 million, but has since expanded.

The D.N.C. also began a blitz of publicity this week around National Voter Registration Day, featuring digital ads aimed at college students on Instagram, YouTube and other platforms. The committee also plans to fly banners during college football games nudging students to register.

“This is the D.N.C.’s largest voter registration investment in a midterm cycle and marks a return to an aspect of party building that the D.N.C. has not engaged in for several cycles,” said Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for the committee.


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