A line outside the polling place at the GCC on the Stanford campus

Philanthropy, Let’s Work Together to Reduce Barriers to Voting

California isn’t immune to the challenges facing our democracy

Urgent action is needed to ensure that all voters, and especially those who continue to face real barriers to voting, are able to exercise this fundamental democratic right.

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Delays in the placement of drop boxes for mail-in ballots … A failure to post sample ballots in multiple languages as required by law … Lost ballots at one polling location that might have disenfranchised as many as 160 college students.

These problems likely would have invited claims of deliberate voter suppression if they happened in a jurisdiction or state with a history of trying to limit the voting power of young people and voters of color. That they happened in Alameda County, California, in November 2020 is proof that protecting voters and ensuring fair elections is important work no matter where we live—or, for philanthropy, where we give.

California isn’t immune to the challenges facing our democracy. Across our state and throughout the nation, urgent action is needed to ensure that all voters, and especially those who continue to face real barriers to voting, are able to exercise this fundamental democratic right. As we look ahead to the November general election, and at a time when so many rights and opportunities hang in the balance, investing in voter access and engagement is critical to ensuring that our democratic systems truly represent the will of all of the people.

California is the most diverse state in the nation—and it is getting more diverse every year. Yet the voting population still does not fully reflect who we are. For example, Latinos, Blacks, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are less likely to vote than white Californians, and young people regularly turn out at substantially lower rates than older voters. Reducing disparities in voter participation will lead to more representation, more influence, and more power for populations that government policies too often overlook or ignore.

Three Steps to More Equal Elections

So how do we do that? How can philanthropy and our partners work to create a more representative electorate and a stronger democracy?

ONE: Invest in voter education and organizing.

We have found that supporting grassroots groups to educate and mobilize young voters and voters of color yields great results. For example, we are partnering with Oakland Rising to help lift up the voices and influence of everyday residents of the East and West Oakland neighborhoods in local elections and government. Ahead of the June 7 primary elections this year, Oakland Rising worked the phones, knocked on doors, and engaged in conversations with hundreds of local residents about what was at stake in local races for district attorney, board of supervisors, and more.

In related work, the Haas, Jr. Fund is a co-founder of the California Black Freedom Fund, which supports Black-led nonprofits across the state to build power in their communities, in part through voter education and mobilization. And, we’re supporting narrative change efforts aimed at mobilizing voters of color and young people to cast their ballots.

TWO. Support equal access to voting.

We also have been increasing our attention to what local governments are (or are not) doing to ensure equal access to voting. The November 2022 election is only the fourth statewide election in California where every voter will be mailed a ballot; successful implementation of mail-in voting (with accessible drop-off boxes and other forms of ballot collection) is essential. At the same time, the advent of mail-in voting has meant that many counties have reduced the number of in-person voting locations in ways that could potentially widen existing participation gaps for voters of color. Yet most voters do not know about these changes and the state has not funded the culturally competent, multi-lingual voter education needed to raise awareness.

Funders and our partners need to pay attention to what’s happening in our communities and invest in organizations and initiatives that are working to ensure that government officials are doing what’s needed to make voting as fair and as accessible as possible. That’s why the Haas, Jr. Fund was the lead sponsor for the 2022 Future of Elections Conference, which brought together election officials, advocates, organizers, and others to explore how best to make equity a hallmark of our state’s elections.

THREE. Invest in community leadership.

We have been learning that another way funders and our community partners can help broaden participation in elections and government is by investing in “outside the box” solutions for building power in communities. For example, we supported nonprofits in Oakland as they led community education, research and planning for a new way to get local residents more engaged in politics and elections, while also making it possible for community-connected leaders to run for office. It’s called “Democracy Dollars,” and it works by giving residents vouchers they can use to direct publicly funded campaign contributions to the candidates of their choice. Their efforts has led to the City Council of Oakland adopting a measure to put a citywide Democracy Dollars program on the November ballot.

Philanthropy also can invest in community voice and power by supporting efforts to train diverse community leaders to assume a range of leadership positions. It’s time to make sure more nonprofit and community leaders, elected officials, and decision-makers in California are truly representative of the communities they serve.

What’s At Stake

When it comes to increasing voter access, broadening voter participation in elections, and transforming our leadership to be representative of California’s communities, funders and our partners have a huge range of options for doing more. At the Haas, Jr. Fund, we’re working with a lot of wonderful and committed partners on these issues, but sometimes we feel we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible.

Please join us in shoring up our democracy. As always, we welcome your ideas, your partnership, and your engagement. Feel free to reach out and brainstorm with Raúl Mácías, program director for Democracy, or me.

We are living in a time when every election (including this November’s) is a high-stakes event with profound effects on people’s lives. Together, we can help people understand why voting is so important, while working with nonprofit and government partners to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in our democracy.