NEW YORK — Democracy, as President Joe Biden declared in his inaugural speech, survived a barrage of misinformation and an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to achieve a peaceful transfer of power.
Yet the threats to democracy remain alarming in the view of most experts. And many major U.S. nonprofits and philanthropies, which provided funding to help safeguard the 2020 elections, plan to keep the money flowing.
Philanthropic groups helped recruit roughly 500,000 potential poll workers last year, paid for election officials’ protective equipment and helped dispel disinformation about where and when people could vote. One nonprofit, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, an advocacy group, provided funding at 2,500 polling places for recruitment and training in the midst of the viral pandemic and the additional equipment and supplies that were needed to process record-high mail-in ballots.
“It is impossible to overstate the significance of the philanthropic response to the difficulties of this election,” the Biden campaign said in an election postmortem.
For all their success in helping ensure what Christopher Krebs, who tracked the voting as head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, called the most secure U.S. election ever, advocates see the need to keep putting their financial muscle behind the cause.
“In Georgia, there have been a slew of voter suppression laws introduced — that’s happening right now,” said Lisa Versaci, director of NEO Philanthropy’s State Infrastructure Fund, which financed $55 million in programs to foster election engagement and protect voting in historically underrepresented communities. “Don’t be fooled. This isn’t going away. It’s going to be occurring in the states, and we’re going to counter it. It doesn’t end.”
The financial support that gushed from philanthropic groups in 2020 had been building for years. Over the past decade, foundations donated nearly $10 billion in the United States to try to boost civic participation, secure election reforms and educate the public, according to the philanthropy research organization Candid. The Ford Foundation, the largest donor in the sector, contributed $635 million in the past four years — 33% more than it had donated in the entire previous decade.
Funding for protecting American democracy began to pick up after the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that invalidated a section of the Voting Rights Act and allowed states to make changes to the voting process without federal approval. Then, in the run-up to the 2020 elections, financial support accelerated as concerns about social injustice, potential voter suppression and public disinformation erupted into public view.
Maria Torres-Springer, the Ford Foundation’s vice president of U.S. programs, noted that the organization has long supported groups who it felt were sometimes excluded from participating in democracy, especially women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. For 2020, the foundation doubled its democracy-related grants from 2019 levels to $200 million.
“The events of the last year really compelled us to double-down on the funding for those groups,” she said. “The multiple crises of the pandemic and then the murder of George Floyd — one in what seems to be an unbroken string of unjust deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement in this country — really compelled us as an institution to say we need to do more to really fortify the social justice organizations that are often underfunded.”
Philanthropic groups that donated to 2020 election security say they were heartened by what looks to them like a successful outcome. Ultimately, despite intense pressure to overturn election results, state election officials and judges of both parties upheld election results across the country in light of no widespread evidence of irregularities or fraud.
“The system held,” Versaci said. “That was a huge relief. And I feel like that didn’t come because of some magic bullet. There was a lot of work on many, many different levels because this was a real threat.”
In different times, the result might have been cause to exult. But the violent insurrection, led by pro-Trump rioters insisting that Biden’s victory had been rigged, showcased the fragility of democracy and the spread of dangerous disinformation.
Tammy Greer, an assistant professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University, said she felt the riot illustrated a disturbing lack of understanding about a process that is fundamental to U.S. presidential elections.
“The Electoral College is an example of representative democracy, and it worked the way it is designed to work,” she said. “If (people) don’t understand how it works, it becomes easy to say, ‘It’s a conspiracy’ or ‘They’re trying to get us’ or something like that.”
Greer, whose research into voter engagement and civic education has traced Georgia’s gradual shift toward the Democrats for more than a decade, suggested that philanthropists should consider supporting grassroots-level democracy-building efforts on an ongoing basis, not just in national election years.
“All of our lives are impacted by what happens on the state level, the local level and the federal level,” Greer said. “When we don’t pay attention to it, you get people who feel left out, and you get people feeling overwhelmed and emotional. Then you have protest, with a gateway to riot.”
This year, Torres-Springer said, the Ford Foundation plans to continue funding both large, established groups that protect democratic structures like voting rights and newer organizations that are building coalitions in individual communities.
“Business as usual is just not going to cut it these days,” Torres-Springer said. “I think the work needs both a sense of urgency about it — because the democracy is at stake — but also uncommon patience. I think it’s a responsibility of philanthropy to show up wearing those two hats when supporting these organizations.”
There also appears to be a growing trend toward bipartisan cooperation among philanthropists. In October, more than 100 philanthropists across the political spectrum signed a letter stating that “repairing the fabric of our democracy will require extraordinary stewardship by leaders across society.” Another letter after the violent riot at the U.S. Capitol drew nearly 300 signatories — including representatives from Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Open Society Foundations and Bloomberg Philanthropies — asking elected leaders to “repair our tattered social fabric and help our democracy live up to its ideals.”
“You’ll find a lot of different views about what constitutes good government,” said Bradford Smith, president of Candid, the philanthropy research organization that developed the Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy analysis tool, which tracks the beneficiaries of money from donors of all political stripes. “They may disagree in terms of being conservative or progressive or in questions of degree. But what they have in common is that they do believe that a democracy can be made to function for the good of society.”
At the same time, Greer of Clark Atlanta University said she thinks much more work is needed to rebuild confidence in secure elections and in democracy in general.
“Democracy is a muscle,” Greer said. “It is like our brain. It is like our heart. It is a muscle. You have to work at it every single day in order for it to be strong.”
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