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Not Just Another Election Year: Reflections on Defending Democracy in 2018

By Joe Goldman / 2018 December 20th

In July, I published an open letter to tell you about the numerous ways our organization stood up in this time of crisis. Since then, Democracy Fund and our grantees have continued to garner important successes in bolstering the guardrails of our democracy.

Nowhere was this more on display in 2018 than during the midterm election. Millions of Americans from across the political spectrum engaged in the electoral process as volunteers, candidates, and voters for the first time. Record-breaking turnout resulted in a Congress that is more reflective of America than ever before. This surge of enthusiasm for our democracy was inspiring and reenergized my dedication to Democracy Fund’s core mission.

Dozens of Democracy Fund grantees played important roles in supporting this groundswell. I am honored that we helped enable their success. I’d like to take this opportunity to share just a few of their stories.

Ensuring the integrity of our electoral process and systems

Razor-thin margins and recounts in numerous races this November brought significant public scrutiny to election officials and highlighted the importance of well-resourced election administration. This year alone, our grantees’ work resulted in the modernization of nine states’ voter registration systems and pressured at least five states to comply with the National Voter Registration Act.

On the important issue of election security, grantees such as the Defending Digital Democracy Project equipped hundreds of jurisdictions across the nation with best practices and resources to meaningfully respond to cyber threats. I’m particularly proud of the contribution of Democracy Fund Voice staff and grantees in ensuring the congressional appropriation of $380 million for election security that was awarded in grants to all 50 states and multiple territories.

Defending voter access

When voter access was put in jeopardy, our grantees fought to protect the rights of voters in some of the most-watched states in the midterm elections. Demos helped protect the language access rights of Spanish speakers in Florida. The Campaign Legal Center sued to defend the voting rights of Native Americans in North Dakota and played a key role in efforts to combat the controversial measures implemented in Georgia by then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Common Cause provided thousands of volunteers to support election protection and strategies to alert the public if voters had problems at the polls. The Texas Civil Rights Project won expanded early voting access for Texas State University students and kept nine polling locations in Harris County open for an extra hour after they opened late on election day.

Engaging and informing voters

Robust and fair elections systems are a crucial starting place for successful elections, but so too is an engaged and informed public. Millions of voters used tools built by Democracy Fund grantees to register to vote, identify their polling locations, and access other important information about the election. Democracy Works’ API powers the voter registration and voter outreach efforts of Facebook, Google, and Twitter, among others – over 3.5 million people received help registering to vote in 2018. Meanwhile, Democracy Fund partnered with Nonprofit Vote and dozens of others to implement the most successful National Voter Registration Day ever, with more than 800,000 Americans registering to vote on September 25th alone.

Throughout the election season, grantees in our Public Square portfolio played an important role in keeping the public informed about election systems, the candidates, and campaigns. Hundreds of local newsrooms supported by Democracy Fund helped prepare and educate voters for the decisions before them. Our North Carolina Local News Lab helped spark an exciting collaboration between Duke University, Politifact, the University of North Carolina, and McClatchy newspapers to publish over a dozen fact-checking articles on local and state races, including a series on the North Carolina constitutional amendments. The Center for Public Integrity undertook a fascinating effort to track the influence of money in races across the country. And ProPublica’s Electionland has quickly become one of the most important journalistic collaborations to track and report on election administration in the country. Their reporting on misinformation and political ads on social media platforms such as Facebook were particularly noteworthy.

In these ways—and so many more—Democracy Fund’s grantees and partners helped shape what may well be a watershed election in our history.

Preparing to govern

With the midterms behind us, Congress is set to receive a significant influx of new members. Many grantees in our Governance program are helping them get off on the right foot through orientations, trainings, and other resources. A record number of women and people of color will hold seats in the 116th Congress, and Democracy Fund has provided additional funding this year to the Women’s Congressional Policy Institute to help these members thrive. The Staff Up Congress initiative, meanwhile, is facilitating the recruitment and placement of members of underrepresented groups for senior congressional staff positions.

With such a large number of first-time legislators set to join the institution, it is all the more important that members of Congress have the resources necessary to manage effective legislative offices. That’s why I’m particularly pleased that so many of the priorities of Democracy Fund Voice and its grantees passed through the FY2019 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill. This includes new resources for the Congressional Research Service and GAO, funding for cybersecurity and tech improvements, and the first significant new funding for member office capacity in Congress in a decade.

Holding government accountable

Our government accountability and investigative journalism grantees have consistently had a hand in some of the key political issues of the year, informing the public and applying pressure where ethical and legal breaches among government actors have been suspected.

  • Our grantees filed more than 3,000 FOIA requests and dozens of FOIA lawsuits, including Lawfare’s successful effort to secure the release of more than 100 FBI emails that contradicted the White House narrative that Director James Comey had lost Bureau support before his firing.
  • ProPublica’s heart-wrenching reporting on the family separation crisis played a key role in rallying public opposition to the administration’s policies. And the Project On Government Oversight and OpenTheGovernment uncovered documents showing that DHS officials signed off on policies that would lead to family separation and then told Congress there was no such policy.
  • Protect Democracy Project is looking ahead to a moment of democratic renewal, laying out an extensive list of reforms to strengthen Congress’ role as the first branch and to rein in executive branch abuses.

Meanwhile, when the Attorney General was forced to resign, we helped lead the philanthropic sector in defending the rule of law by rallying 45 signatories to our statement demanding that the Mueller investigation be allowed to reach its conclusion unimpeded.

Elsewhere in our portfolio, grantees have continued the slow and steady work of informing and engaging the public through trustworthy local journalism, building an effective and constructive Congress, and rebuilding a strong civic fabric by reaffirming our commitment to core American values.

Across the nation, I see dedicated Americans standing up for the type of democracy they want and working daily to build it. The determination our sector has shown has given me renewed faith in our democracy’s future and has increased my resolve to face the challenges ahead. In my open letter in July, I noted that our approach would be far more aggressive in combating the unprecedented threats that our democracy faces. In the new year, Democracy Fund looks forward to continuing to invest in efforts to create a more effective Congress, modern and secure elections, and a robust public square.

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