Let's Fight Racial Bias in Voting Through Donor Collaboratives and Litigation

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Let's Fight Racial Bias in Voting Through Donor Collaboratives and Litigation
by Gail Ablow, Carnegie Visiting Media Fellow, Democracy
The original version of this piece appeared on the Carnegie Corporation of New York website

Foundations are funding the right—and the fight—to vote, working collaboratively to engage the next generation of leaders.

In July Carnegie Corporation of New York, in collaboration with Philanthropy New York, the Mertz Gilmore and Overton foundations, hosted a briefing on voting rights for funders titled, "Will Philanthropy Join In The Fight To Vote?" Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, launched the conversation with stories from his new book, The Fight to Vote. He was followed by advocates who are in the trenches today, defending the rights of hundreds of thousands of potential voters—in particular, minorities, the elderly, and the poor. Not long after the gathering, a wave of rulings from four federal courts, and one state court, struck down or loosened voting restrictions in Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas, and North Dakota.

Geri Mannion of Carnegie

Jay Beckner of the Mertz Gilmore Foundation

Legal victories like these are hard won and expensive—and behind the scenes, philanthropy is playing an important role. Geri Mannion of Carnegie and Jay Beckner of the Mertz Gilmore Foundation got together after the briefing for a discussion with Carnegie Visiting Media Fellow Gail Ablow to discuss how foundations can support voting rights litigation.

Gail Ablow: What are some of the biggest voting rights challenges we are facing as a country this election year?

Mannion: This is the first presidential year following Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act. In addition, this year many states will be implementing voter ID laws—and without the preclearance protections of the Department of Justice and a lack of understanding by citizens, there may be confusion on the ground.

The Justice Department no longer has the ability to preclear election plans, such as reviewing changes in polling locations or redistricting plans. In the past you had the protections of the Voting Rights Act that would preclear changes to the laws in communities that had a history of racial bias: New York City, Chicago, places in the South—or any place with a historical pattern of voting discrimination. In the Shelby decision, the Supreme Court basically said that there are no longer these patterns of racism, so they removed the preclearance responsibility. Since then, people have taken advantage of this, both overtly and by accident. Sometimes it is an economic issue, but often it is racially biased in the implementation, if not in the intent.

Beckner: There should also be a huge voter turnout this year, so I am also concerned about equipment and staffing and choices that are being made in certain places—to not have as many polling places and to be open for fewer hours. There may also be problems with the voting machines.

Ablow: Why is it important to fund voting rights litigation?

Mannion: Litigation is important because it offers the first opportunity to stop something bad from happening through an injunction. A lot of foundations hate litigation because they think it is a money pit. But litigation has been a very important tool. If it weren’t for all the great legal defense funds and other litigation groups, we would be in much worse shape.

Beckner: At NEO Philanthropy there is the State Infrastructure Fund, which is a donor collaborative. It is an excellent way for a funder that doesn’t know much about the issue to get going very quickly, with very few barriers to entry. You do not have to develop in-house expertise, you can join people who have been doing this for a long time, and you can do it collaboratively. We joined in 2012 and—four years later—we are still in.

Mannion: One grantee that the State Infrastructure Fund and Carnegie Corporation supports directly is MALDEF, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which convenes the informal voting rights litigation group, a dream team of voting rights litigators. Over ten groups have come together, they divide up the work, they make sure they know who will take which cases, in which places.

Ablow: How do donor collaboratives make it easier for a foundation to tackle voting rights litigation?

Mannion: Donor collaboratives are cost effective. If you have a limited amount of money, you’re putting it in with other funders. There is a staff that oversees the grantmaking and ensures that the due diligence is done correctly. They vet the various proposals and recommend a grantmaking docket. A funder’s money goes a long way. You are able to leverage your funding with that of other donors, rather than having to start a whole new program yourself.

Beckner: We also trust that NEO Philanthropy is able to handle the legal and administrative decision-making. If your foundation board is at all unsure of this kind of funding, you want to go with someone that you know has very smart procedures and legal people advising them. You really have to trust the collaborative management, which we do in this situation.

If a funder is more interested in supporting efforts to play defense, an excellent place to look is the Voting Rights Institute at Georgetown University. Mertz Gilmore Foundation and others helped launch it. The Georgetown University Law Center, the American Constitution Society, and the Campaign Legal Center got together to help attorneys, witnesses, law students, and the public combat discriminatory voting practices across the country.

Mannion: Jay—you’re part of the Piper Fund, a donor collaborative that works on money in politics. Carnegie Corporation of New York is also part of the Four Freedoms Fund, which focuses on building immigrant integration policy in the states. Jay has a small team. I have a small team. I would not be able to do the work I do without having these kinds of collaborations. First of all, I am learning a lot from the other donors, and I don’t have to worry about hiring a bigger staff. Also, I would not be able to fund in so many states without the good staffing of these funds.

Beckner: The flip side is that if you do want to staff up and grow, it is a great place to go to learn from your peers and eventually build an in-house program if that’s what you are interested in doing.

Ablow: How do you assure funders that the grantees receiving the funds are not partisan?

Beckner: If your foundation is worried about partisanship, you can certainly fund public education on these issues—programs for young people, or programs for new citizens. There are a lot of people out there who don’t understand the way government works. You can fund that without any fear.

Mannion: Some funders think that voting rights has become partisan. I totally disagree with that idea. Lower income people, young people, people of color—they may tend to be more progressive, but not always, and not always over the long term. Latinos, for example, are both progressive and conservative. Democracy should be about broadening the ability to vote, not narrowing it. We should be figuring out ways to engage the next generation of leaders. Who is going to run for office if young people have no idea why politics is important, why government is important? How will they learn to lead?

Ablow: What is your advice for people who want to take a first step into funding voting rights work?

Beckner: The State Infrastructure Fund will gladly give you peer contacts in the foundation world. All the funders I call are happy to speak to other funders who are thinking about getting into this arena, whether or not you join the fund. The Foundation Center also has a democracy mapping project. It is a democracy website that shows you which groups are being funded and by whom, and how much is being spent. Voting and voting rights are included. It is another great resource for people to begin with.

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