States Have Let Down Voters. Now They’re Attacking the Work of Nonpartisan Charitable Groups That Help Them.

Debra Cleaver sitting on a couch with artwork on the wall behind her
VoteAmerica Founder, Debra Cleaver. Photo courtesy of Debra Cleaver

The author, Debra Cleaver, is Founder and CEO of VoteAmerica

I’m a nonprofit entrepreneur and I’ve been working in the civic tech space for 16 years. I founded and more recently VoteAmerica because voter turnout in this country is unacceptably low – by design. In virtually every other country with democratically elected leaders, the burden is not on the voter to register to vote.

But in the U.S., we have a complicated and inconsistent patchwork of rules which confuses people and breeds distrust. We seek to close this trust gap by providing trusted election information with open platform technology and education programs to support and empower vulnerable voters.

Registration systems set up by state governments are so antiquated that some states require you to fax in forms. I’m not kidding.

Since 87% of Americans have a smartphone, we’ve built technology that lets you sign up to vote directly from your mobile device. No printing or mailing. I often say this around the office: we build smart solutions to stupid problems!

Helping Americans Vote by Mail

During the 2020 election year, everyone had to navigate voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Naturally, there was a heavy emphasis on vote-by-mail because people wishing to abide by Center for Disease Control (CDC) social distancing guidelines chose the safety and convenience of voting from home.

VoteAmerica helps by making it easier for people to interact with voting systems. Our organization is strictly nonpartisan. We want to make voting more accessible for all voters and aren’t interested in who they vote for.

Many American voters rely on third party groups to provide them with preprinted absentee ballot applications that they can easily review and submit to their county elections official without the need for a broadband internet connection or access to a printer or scanner at home.

We made harder-to-reach voters the center of our 2020 outreach campaign. It worked.

A record (majority) of registered voters under age 30 voted in the November 2020 general election. Black voter turnout increased in 2020, and Native American voters in the Navajo Nation (where VoteAmerica ran specific turnout programs) turned out in record numbers. We’re hoping to build off last year’s success.

I imagine that voting by mail will continue to be popular after the pandemic recedes. When you give people an accessible way of voting, they often like it. Importantly, for our country at large, vote-by-mail access increases the likelihood people will vote, and it increases turnout.

Having your ballot sitting on your kitchen table is a great reminder to fill it out and return it. Once you introduce people to voting by mail, they are more inclined to do it again.

Politicians Target Public Interest Charities

Now in 2021, rather than addressing real issues – such as removing barriers to vote-by-mail or fixing state websites – most state legislatures around the country have introduced bills that move us backward – restricting Americans’ freedom to vote.

In Georgia, a new voter suppression bill was signed into law that would restrict the distribution of vote-by-mail applications to voters. The law threatens small organizations like VoteAmerica – which peaks at 30 employees during election season – with crippling fines simply for prefilling a voter’s information in a vote-by-mail application.

This is a slap in the face to public interest charities. I fear it will have a chilling effect on the nonpartisan voter outreach that is critical to the mission of organizations like VoteAmerica. With Campaign Legal Center (CLC) representing us in court, we sued on April 7, 2021 because this is a blatant attack on democracy itself.

It’s not just Georgia. In Kansas, another bill was signed into law that similarly targets charities like VoteAmerica. It’s a waste of time and taxpayer resources to go after charities that are just trying to help people have a voice in our political system.

So, we are teaming up with CLC again and suing Kansas too. You can be sure we’ll be watching to see if other states engage in the same scare tactics.

Politicians Focus on the Wrong Problem

The problem politicians should be solving is that we have inaccessible systems that prevent people from voting. 

Instead, politicians are hell bent on making the problem worse rather than examining their own failures. Their brazen disrespect for the citizens they were elected to serve has become more obvious in the past year.

They are clearly communicating through their actions – in a growing list of states – that voters should not be able to choose their elected officials. This national voter suppression agenda is not acceptable – VoteAmerica and CLC are not going to stand by and watch it happen.

Protecting the Rights of Nonpartisan Nonprofits Engaged in Voter Registration