The Foundation is conducting a time-limited exploration of 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 have been working to strengthen voting rights, improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the voting system, and reduce the impact of money in political campaigns.
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; the amount of money necessary to run a political campaign has increased dramatically (even as transparency about political funding has decreased), 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 journalism contributes to news options that are designed to educate the public about important issues over an array of platforms and outlets. MacArthur is making grants in three areas of work explicitly addressing the institutions and processes of American Democracy: campaign finance reform, voting rights, 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.
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:
- National Conference of State Legislatures, for its Elections Technology Project
- Pew Election Initiative, for helping voting administrators improve voter registration processes and share information
- University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, for a set of guides on ballot design
- Verified Voting Foundation, for promoteing voting machine and polling place accountability
In recent years, there have been new voting requirements passed and implemented in several states and localities that have made the process of voting more difficult for groups of eligible citizens. These efforts have been made easier by the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder on the Voting Rights Act, procedures which struck down the formula by which states and localities were determined to have a history of racial discrimination in voting, and required to “pre-clear” any changes to their voting laws with the U.S. Department of Justice. Much of the burden of monitoring and challenging potentially discriminatory voting law changes has now fallen to voting rights organizations.
The Foundation also supported a set of organizations working to make the 2012 elections more fair and accessible, including the Advancement Project, Brennan Center for Justice, and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Other work to strengthen U.S. democracy
Even as we pursue these three 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, 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.
Updated March 2015