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The Democracy Fund: Another Deep Pocket for Election Administration

Photo/Democracy Fund/Systems Map

The Democracy Fund is a private foundation, a 501(c)(3)-PF, founded by eBay creator Pierre Omidyar in 2014, dedicated to “democracy reform and a healthy democracy.” The foundation exerts a profound influence on the entire scope of the election process, from the voter to policy and legislation, election administration, public trust, and even the way the media influences the whole process from end to end. Since 2014, the group has funded grants of “more than $150 million in support of those working to strengthen our democracy through the pursuit of a vibrant and diverse public square, free and fair elections, effective and accountable government, and a just and inclusive society.” 

While the group touts itself as “independent and nonpartisan,” it is arguably a transparently left-leaning organization. The descriptors used to define its values and mission, the policies it prioritizes, and the organizations that receive its grants show a bias toward a left-leaning belief system. Voters, election administration, and election legislation dominate its mission. Significantly, the foundation approaches elections from a systems perspective. The systems approach guarantees that there is almost no component of the election process the foundation does not touch. They seem to use their systems approach and analysis to strategically determine where their grant funding should go.

Notably, the Democracy Fund is also associated with a 501(c)(4) organization, Democracy Fund Voice, which “is permitted to intervene in elections,” according to Influence Watch. The Democracy Fund Voice is a “left-leaning lobbying and electoral advocacy group within the advocacy-philanthropy network” founded by Omidyar.

The Systems Approach

The Democracy Fund contends that a healthy democracy framework requires a systems approach that rests on six elements:

  • energized civic participation;
  • vibrant news and media;
  • independent civil society;
  • effective governing institutions;
  • free and fair elections;
  • and impartial rule of law and equal civil rights.
Six Pillars/Democracy Fund

The website shows a number of thoroughly considered “systems maps.” The primary categories of focus for these maps are:

The site also features blogs written by staff that are dedicated to systems thinking, covering a variety of topics. Public Square, Elections, Governance, and a Fair and Just Society are the big “ideas” discussed, as seen in the captured drop-down from the site below.

Blog/Democracy Fund/Topics

Toolkits are also featured, with a focus on voter participation, equity in journalism, how to assess your local news ecosystem, and more. The toolkit page also takes “a deeper dive” with three initiatives, all funded by the Democracy Fund:

Local News Lab, electionline, and Voter Study Group are Democracy Fund initiatives that provide original, curated information on sustainable local journalism, election administration, and the changing views of the American electorate.

The Democracy Fund also dedicates itself to policy statements on various topics on its press release page. Immigration policy, public opinion and voter polls, announcements on grant funding—some of it to support “an independent, robust free press“—the strengthening of elections, etc. are among the topics discussed.

Grants and Funding

The Democracy Fund has a profound impact on the grant funding community because of the network it has cultivated. The foundation supports a network of over 200 partners and organizations. It supplies resources for peer funders to “develop strategy, create alignment, and dedicate pooled resources,” and it “expands its impact” with its participation in joint funding:

“Along with some of the nation’s largest grantmakers and philanthropists, Democracy Fund participates in a series of joint funds that leverage additional financial support, reduce the burden on grantees, and move resources to the field quickly and efficiently. When there’s a gap in the field, we partner with others to launch new funds.”

Its “highly-impactful joint fund” collaborators are:

  • The Trusted Elections Fund, with its first round of grants made in 2020.
  • NewsMatch, which has “helped bring more than $192 million into the nonprofit journalism sector” since 2016.
  • The Racial Equity in Journalism Fund, “created in 2019…with $3.6 million to support and build the capacity of newsrooms by and for people of color, who are best positioned to deliver critical news and information to their communities.” In April 2020, the fund awarded $2.3 million in a first round of grants to 16 news organizations, including Flint Beat, La Noticia, and Sahan Journal. Its partner Borealis Philanthropy Fund 2021 Annual Report, shows $31.7 million to 329 grantee partners. Borealis states that it is at “the forefront of resourcing movements…to building a new way forward…with a stubborn commitment to the long haul…supporting grassroots groups in every region of the U.S.

Borealis
  • The Legal Clinic Fund to “advance and protect First Amendment Rights, media freedom, and transparency” in communities. “Since 2019, the Legal Clinic Fund has awarded over $2 million to university legal clinics around the country, including The University of Buffalo Civil Liberties & Transparency Clinic and Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic.”
  • The Regional Local News Funds which has “supported efforts like training from the Center for Cooperative Media in New Jersey, reporting around North Carolina’s recovery after Hurricane Florence, and a counter-misinformation collaboration among Colorado news organizations.”
  • The NetGain Partnership, a “global collaboration to address the evolving challenges and opportunities of the digital age. It brings together civil society groups and supports new relationships between researchers and advocates, specifically in the area of misinformation and online hate.” More than $80 million yearly has been invested in “expert convenings, learning events, research, and grantmaking. “Grantees include the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law, and the Center for Responsive Politics.”
  • Faith In/And Democracy, a “pilot funding and learning initiative led by Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) to explore the ways faith and faith communities can support democracy and civic life.” $300,000 in grant support since 2019.
  • The Tech Justice Fund, “with racial justice at its foundation, this joint fund mobilizes philanthropic resources to support a multiracial coalition addressing the well-documented ways Big Tech and social media platforms have harmed BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities.”

Democracy Fund Grant Database

UncoverDC has reported on various other foundations and nonprofits that focus on election administration, voter initiatives, whose participation in funding partnerships shapes almost every aspect of American elections. Notably, many of these organizations are being partially funded by the Democracy Fund.

A look at their grants database page, filtering for “elections” and “current funding,” shows that the foundation has donated to numerous initiatives and nonprofits. For example, the Center for Tech and Civic Live (CTCL) just received the largest grant offered in 2021, totaling $555,000 for “general operating support” for “voter-centric election administration.” The CTCL grant length is from September 2021 to August 2023. CTCL has received several other grants from the Democracy Fund as far back as 2015, with a total of $2,555,000 million.

In 2021 alone, the foundation paid $1,590,000 in grants to six different projects or entities. Notably, the Center for Election Innovation and Research (CEIR) received grants in 2017 and 2018, totaling $905,000.

2021 Grantees/https://democracyfund.org/for-partners/grants-database/?fwp_program_areas=elections&fwp_grant_status=active

In other years working back in the active grants filter to 2018, the grants include funding for Mississippi Votes, the National Conference of State Legislatures, Center for Internet Security, Democracy Works, Inc., Fair Elections Center, CivicTN, MIT, Common Cause Education Fund, League of Women Voters Education Fund, several universities and more. The three largest grants went to NEO Philanthropy Inc for $1,180,000 million, Common Cause Education Fund for $1,175,000 million, and Democracy Works Inc. for $950,000.

The Form 990-PF for 2020 for the Democracy Fund shows its total assets at $83,492,609 million. This is down from 2019, showing total assets of $87,348,415 million.

As demonstrated in this column, the Democracy Fund has its hand in a broad scope of democracy reform projects and partnerships. The foundation is yet another black hole in the world of the American election machine. Taking a look at their page on election administration and voting systems, it maps out, end to end, every aspect of running an election—including voter engagement and training for election officials. Voters will do well to understand how deeply organizations like these are now influencing our election process.

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