The Foundation is exploring ways to strengthen democracy in the U.S., given our perception that the political system has failed to adequately address major issues confronting the nation – from climate change to health care, from our fiscal future to the criminal justice system, from immigration to education.
We believe Washington has not responded effectively to the long-term, serious problems affecting the country. Public confidence in Congress, the presidency, government in general, and even the Supreme Court is at record lows. The rising frustration of citizens, documented in poll after poll, is influenced by an economy that is improving too slowly, a sense that the social and cultural ground is shifting in unpredictable ways, and a perception on the part of many that the political system is distorted by the large amounts of money being spent on campaigns.
At the same time, a clear and troubling effort is underway to make voting more difficult; the voices of popular dissatisfaction are becoming louder; and the concentration of wealth and income continues to grow and may be contributing to both electoral system distortions and to policies that perpetuate that inequality.
The Foundation has long supported work designed to strengthen democratic institutions and a vibrant democracy in the fields of education, juvenile justice, federal and state fiscal policy, and journalism. MacArthur’s support for non-profit media contributes to news options that are designed to educate the public about important issues over an array of platforms and outlets. At present, MacArthur is making grants in two new areas of work: campaign finance reform and voting administration.
Money influences how elections are conducted, who wins elections, and often how elected officials set their priorities once in office. The perception that money is more important to elected officials than the views of their constituents discourages active engagement by citizens. Those seeking to change this process have been working for years to promote more disclosure of campaign and election-related contributions and public financing of elections. A more recent emphasis has been on using public funds to match small campaign contributions.
The grants we have awarded or are developing are intended to:
Support legal work: At present, there are some successful state and local models of public financing of campaigns and disclosure of campaign contributions and independent expenditures (about 22 states have both disclosure laws and data collection systems in place). Yet there are increasing challenges to these programs – challenges that are difficult for the Attorneys General in the states to respond to, given their limited resources and knowledge about the intricacies of campaign finance law. Further, key cases like the Supreme Court’s Arizona Free Enterprise decision require states to recast existing laws. We have approved grants to the Campaign Legal Center, the Brennan Center at New York University, and Democracy 21 to provide legal expertise.
Support data collection and analysis: Two organizations provide campaign finance data and analysis for all who are interested (particularly journalists and scholars): the Center for Responsive Politics for national data and the National Institute on Money in State Politics for state-level data. The Campaign Finance Institute conducts research on the impacts of different interventions in campaign finance. MapLight, collects and analyzes data on campaign contributions and voting records of elected officials and presents that information side by side.
Support key constituencies and new approaches to the issue: Justice at Stake is calling public attention to the role that money is playing in judicial elections and the potential implications. It is working with State Supreme Courts on codes of conduct that spell out rules for recusal, disclosure of judicial election campaign contributions, and public financing of judicial elections. Recently, we supported Public Campaign and Demos, to bring new constituencies to the effort to implement comprehensive campaign finance reform in New York State and elsewhere.
The voting process is highly decentralized, resulting in different policies and practices in states and counties throughout the country, even for national elections. Policies and practices for registration, early voting, ballot design, poll hours, voting machine selection, and proper voter identification vary widely. Most “officials” who work at the polls are volunteers who must address complicated situations with limited training. Some states regularly have long lines at the polls, others report their votes slowly, while others provide confusing information about the identification needed to vote. We have begun making a set of grants to address voting issues that include voting machine security, ballot design, online voter registration, voting access and processes that might limit it, voting process abuses, voter information and education, and recommended processes to modernize voting practices.
Grantee organizations include Verified Voting Foundation, which promotes voting machine and polling place accountability, the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, for a set of guides on ballot design, and the National Conference of State Legislatures, for its Elections Technology Project.
The Foundation also supported a set of organizations working to make the 2012 elections more fair and accessible, including the Advancement Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, League of Women Voters Education Fund, and Project Vote.
Other work to strengthen U.S. democracy
Even as we pursue these two important areas, we continue to explore other work that may be important to the core goal of strengthening U.S. democracy. For example, we supported the Pew Research Center to conduct new polling on attitudes of citizens and the influence of media on those decisions, the Salzburg Global Seminar for a meeting to be held with the Volcker Alliance on the implementation of public policy through stronger and more effective governance; and the Foundation Center for a collaborative project with six other foundations to “map” the set of activities and the funding underway in the field. In addition, to help Congress cross partisan divides, the Foundation has supported the Aspen Congressional Seminar and a bipartisan program for newly elected members of the U.S. House of Representatives offered by the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress.