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Voter Turnout: A Linchpin of American Democracy

November 03, 2015

Voter turnout in the last midterm election was embarrassing, hitting the lowest levels since World War II, while statements like "the game is rigged" and "why bother" could be heard in conversations around the country.

But it does matter. It matters to the effectiveness of our democracy if the majority of people stay home on Election Day. And it matters to the future of our democracy if most Americans think of government as an inefficient "other" rather than something we create.

While running an organization focused on engaging young people in politics, I was privileged to be able to travel the world and speak with other organizational and state leaders on the topic of democracy. Those trips never failed to remind me that, in the U.S., we are lucky to have a robust nonprofit sector with nongovernmental and nonpartisan organizations dedicated to promoting the health of the country and democracy, as well as an equally robust foundation community that supports them. Collaboration among foundations supporting democracy-focused work in the U.S., combined with creative and rigorously evaluated work by nonprofits, is a critical part of solving the crisis that faces our nation as citizens stop participating and give up on — rather than try to improve — the government we have created over the last two hundred and twenty-eight years.

So, I was struck by the data I turned up when searching Foundation Center's Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool. For example, funding for the entire category of "Campaigns, Elections, and Voting" lagged far behind funding in any other category, making up only 8 percent of the total funding for U.S. democracy in 2011 and 14 percent in 2012. The three other main categories (Media, Government, and Civic Participation) comprising the U.S. democracy funding landscape (as defined by the tool) received 41 percent, 30 percent, and 31 percent of funds, respectively, in 2011 and similar percentages in 2012. And this was during a presidential election cycle. (Note: grants may support democracy work in more than one area; therefore, totals for the major areas of activity exceed 100 percent.)


Break it down further and you find:

  • Of all foundation funding in 2011-12 for U.S. democracy programs, only 6 percent was spent on voter registration, education, and turnout.
  • Funding to change the rules and make our system of electing representatives reflect the ideals of our democracy and give people confidence that their vote does matter (redistricting, voting access, election administration, and campaign finance efforts combined) represented just 5 percent of all foundation funding for U.S. democracy work in 2011-12.

Let me be blunt. If a growing number of Americans really do believe that the rules of the game are rigged and participation in elections does not matter because their voice will always be trumped by special interests, then shouldn't we be spending more to ensure that our systems of voting and elections are tweaked to tilt power back to the people? And shouldn't we be investing in efforts to teach potential voters about the power they have in a democracy, why their participation matters, and the tools they have at their disposal to leverage that participation?

The lack of confidence among Americans in our democracy is not something that more funding from the foundation community alone can solve. Yes, it is exciting to see promising new ideas and initiatives underwritten by private-sector investment. But as the data in Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy shows, the amount of foundation funding aimed at increasing engagement in our electoral and political processes is hardly adequate to address the scale and scope of the problem.

What the data can do is help us all understand where that foundation funding is going, identify gaps in funding, and make the case for (1) increased funding in the critical area of "Campaigns, Elections, and Voting"; and (2) increased funding from other program areas — from media to non-electoral civic engagement — in support of telling the story of citizen action and the critical role that voting plays in supporting the democracy we want and the many freedoms and benefits it conveys.

A red flag was raised last year as voter turnout in the midterm elections hit record lows. I believe, however, that with innovation from our nonprofit sector and investment from foundations, we can restore faith in our political process and tilt the power balance in our country back toward the people.

Headshot_heather_smithHeather Smith, a consultant who works on issues of democracy, technology and millennial engagement, is a senior advisor to the Pluribus Project, a special initiative of the Aspen Institute and the former president of Rock the Vote, which she continues to serve as a director. You can follow her at @hasmith4. This is the sixth in a series of ten posts about U.S. democracy and civil society that will be featured here on PhilanTopic in the run-up to Election Day, and beyond.


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