Many in the progressive foundation community are wondering how the results of the midterm elections will affect their funding areas, be it health, education, the environment, income inequality, or civil rights. What will become of our hard work to move a progressive agenda forward? How far will that agenda be set back? Let me suggest one area that has an impact on every one of the issues progressives hold dear, an area that could sorely use some funding — the public's understanding of and participation in our democracy.
Contrary to what many have said, the midterm elections weren't determined by the vast sums spent (mostly) on negative campaign ads (though, of course, money played a role in the outcome). They were determined by people who made their way to a polling place and cast a ballot — the most sacred act in the democratic canon. It's simple. Who votes determines what government looks like, the policies it pursues, which programs are funded or are cut, which regulations are written or are dropped. Who votes is a critical factor in determining who is appointed to the Supreme Court and who heads the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services. In other words, who votes determines whether our elected officials will or won't champion a progressive agenda. What does that mean for foundations with missions focused on social justice, health and welfare, and education? It means that they are unlikely to realize their long-term goals of a better and more just society without also supporting efforts to strengthen the infrastructure of our democracy.
Take a moment and reflect on whether your foundation has ever considered supporting organizations working to ensure that young people, low-income people, people of color — people in society who are marginalized and stand to benefit the most from implementation of a progressive agenda — vote. I'd wager that more than a few foundations don't or won't because, as the saying goes, "That's not our issue." That's like a homeowner who decides to paint over serious cracks in her ceilings and walls without bothering to fix the problem in the basement that's causing the cracks. Our democratic infrastructure is in serious need of fixing, and the more it deteriorates, the harder it will be for progressive-minded foundations to achieve their agendas and the more money they will end up spending on short-term fixes.
Citizens United and other recent court cases may have given corporations and billionaires a huge advantage in terms of buying a government that is responsive to their needs, but money isn't the most powerful tool in our democratic toolkit. Voting is. Corporations can't vote (yet), and billionaires only have one vote, just like you and me. Doesn't it make sense, therefore, to fund surveys and research aimed at determining why turnout, especially in midterm elections, is so low and why, increasingly, people, especially young people, can't be bothered to vote? Doesn't it make sense to ask Americans what it is they would like to see in terms of a system that supports their right to vote?
That's a waste of time and money, some people will say. People don't vote because they don't think their vote counts. Or: People don't vote because they are disillusioned with the increasingly partisan and polarized nature of our politics. Both are true. But there's another reason why a growing number of Americans have given up on voting: It's complicated and confusing.
A few examples: Most states require potential voters to register (if they aren't already) before Election Day, but many people aren't aware of this fact and wouldn't know how to register if they were. I only learned about the registration deadline in my community from an article on page four of the local paper. How many non-voters read the paper, let alone get all the way to page four? I also heard about the deadline on our local public radio station, the day before the deadline. Again, how many non-voters listen to public radio? What about actual access to polling places? Are they located in places that are easy to get to for people who may not have cars and rely on public transportation? Are they marked clearly? Are they accessible to the disabled? And that's just the simple stuff. I asked some young adults at the local community college if they planned to vote, and some of the answers I got were disturbing: I don't know how. I'm afraid of making a mistake. I don't know if I'm a Republican or a Democrat.
In the end, fixing our democratic infrastructure is critical if progressive foundations are to realize the long-term systemic change they seek. The good news is that progressive foundations and wealthy philanthropists have the resources to make it happen. It's time to take a page from the conservative playbook and fund the work so desperately needed to strengthen that infrastructure so that everyone who can vote and wants to vote is able to vote. It's the only way to ensure that we have a government willing to support and implement policies that meet the education, health, and welfare needs of all Americans.
Ruth Holton-Hodson is a former director of public policy for the California Wellness Foundation and executive director of California Common Cause. She recently served as the deputy controller for health and consumer policy in the California State Controller’s Office.