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How Tax-Exempt Nonprofits Skirt U.S. Law To Turn Out Democrats For Elections

More than 150 left-wing nonprofits spent $1.35 billion on political activities in 2021 and 2022, revealed data from Restoration of America.

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Even as Democrats such as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse warn of “right-wing dark-money network[s] seeking to undermine the future of democratic elections in the United States,” progressives have far-outstripped Republicans in harnessing the power of putatively nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations that push the boundaries to win elections.

More than 150 progressive nonprofits spent $1.35 billion on political activities in 2021 and 2022, according to data compiled by Restoration of America, a conservative political action committee. Although there are no readily available estimates of comparable conservative efforts, observers say they are overmatched.

“The liberal nonprofit sector is much bigger than the conservative nonprofit in the political arena,” said Bradley Smith, a former commissioner with the Federal Election Commission and founder of the conservative Institute for Free Speech.

The progressive activist nonprofits include faith-based groupsethnic activist operatives, and colleges and universities, which have taken on an outsized part of the Democratic Party’s election strategy.

The groups work around legal restrictions on nonprofits that accept tax-deductible donations by selectively engaging in nonpartisan efforts including boosting voter education and participation.

But, like the estimated $332 million that Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan donated to public elections offices to help run the 2020 elections, much of it winds up in the hands of groups that operate in liberal strongholds and work with reliably Democratic constituencies.

This is in part how two influential groups, the Voter Participation Center and its partner group, the Center for Voter Information, increase Democrat turnout.

They have the stated mission of encouraging people in specified demographics — “young people, people of color and unmarried women” — to vote. All three groups are part of the Democratic Party’s base. Voters in these groups are up to two-and-a-half times more likely to vote when engaged by a nonprofit, according to research from Nonprofit Vote, an advocacy group for tax-exempt activist groups.

The value of these groups was underscored when the Biden administration prepared to compose his executive order directing federal agencies to “expand citizens’ opportunities to register to vote.” In July 2021 officials met with leading progressive operators, including  Democracy Fund, Fair Elections Center, FairVote, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, and the George Soros-backed Open Society Policy Center, according to an internal administration email obtained by the Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative nonprofit that is suing the administration to obtain records related to the executive order.

The Democratic Party’s stance on issues, from climate change to voting procedures, is also echoed by their nonprofit allies. The Fair Elections Center, for example, calls those who questioned the outcome of the 2020 presidential race “election deniers” who oppose the right to vote. Their stance echoes President Biden, who said last year that there were “more than 300 election deniers on the ballot” for the midterms, adding that “It’s damaging, it’s corrosive, and it’s destructive.”

Significant funding for these and other voting activist operations flows from the same sources that put millions of dollars into Democratic and progressive campaigns.

Among them:

The Tides Foundation, with $1 billion in revenue in 2020, funds the moveon.org PAC while also giving to the Voter Registration Project, League of Women Voters, and Project Vote. The foundation is one of several Tides nonprofits that operate in the charity world of progressive funding, giving to groups that advocate for abortion rights, gun control, and “equity” causes. Tides is also a partner of Black Lives Matter.

New Venture Fund, formed in 2006 as Arabella Legacy Fund, lobbies for progressive causes, including election laws, in 41 states, and in 2020, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed by a former employee, “disbursed nearly $500 million to address progressive issues such as racial justice.” The lawsuit contends New Venture engaged in prohibited partisan political activity, which is disputed by New Venture. New Venture is also a key financial supporter of progressive voting groups American Votes, NAACP National Voter Fund, and Fair Elections Center.

The Silicon Valley Community Foundation since 2020 has given $106 million in grants to nonprofits for voter education and turnout. It was the primary conduit of Zuckerberg’s millions in grants that went to public elections offices around the U.S. in 2020 and has donated money to Planned Parenthood and Democracy Now, while its employees have donated exclusively to Democratic candidates.

The number and funding of electorally active progressive nonprofits have increased dramatically during the past decade. Their get-out-the-vote efforts are replacing those of political campaigns, which traditionally relied on their own staffers to engage voters.

Much of the switch from party and campaign activity to nonprofits stems from a changing political landscape, which de-emphasizes the short-term goals of candidates (winning elections) to a longer-term vision for party dominance, said Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. His 2012 book chronicled this shift through the increasing use of micro-analytics and social science in voter targeting, a strategy first dominated by Republicans, then updated and refined by Democrats. That refinement was carried out by younger individuals who were comfortable with a collectivist mindset, he said.

A “historical volunteer culture” set the table for a blossoming of the nonprofit base of the left, Issenberg told RealClearInvestigations. “When you had this era of innovation on the left, it set upon a culture that was already in place and wanted to perfect this idea.”

The progressive voter groups adroitly navigate tax rules that allow 501(c)(3) nonprofits to engage in voter participation and get-out-the-vote drives provided the effort is not aimed to benefit a political party.

These groups have access to solid voter and other demographic data, along with large teams of experienced community organizers, said Erick Kaardal, a Minneapolis-based attorney who has filed dozens of election-related lawsuits, some in connection with his role as special counsel for the conservative Thomas More Society.

“These groups are very good at legal compliance,” Kaardal said. When conservative nonprofits violate the rules, their liberal opponents “justly file complaints.” But Republicans, he said, “are novices … and [conservative nonprofits] also lack the resources [progressives] have. It’s not unfair; they have paid big money to have this well-oiled machine and to keep it legal it takes those resources.”

Today, tax-exempt entities drive the efforts to get out votes and register voters while engaging in advocacy that virtually copies the platforms of leading elected Democratic officials.

Under the guise of civic engagement or voter advocacy, the advocacy nonprofits pepper email inboxes with fundraising pitches while alleging that efforts to reform or stem practices that lead to ballot fraud are tantamount to voter suppression. “In a crucial state that decided control of the U.S. Senate in the last two elections, Georgia voters are no stranger to voter suppression schemes,” reads an email sent to constituents by Vote.org, seeking to raise money to combat voter integrity measures passed by Republican lawmakers in 2021.

Vote.org describes itself as the largest “nonpartisan voting registration and get-out-the-vote (GOTV) technology platform in America,” while its correspondence often echoes statements made by Democrats including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams of Georgia, and President Biden. “Threats to democracy” and voter “suppression” are a common term in Vote.org’s press releases and in social media posts. The organization largely embraces the Democratic Party’s position that voter integrity measures backed by Republicans – including voter ID laws and restrictions on mail-in ballots – are almost always aimed at voter suppression. Vote.org also focuses on areas and groups that may be less likely to vote, which tends to include young and minority voters that Democrats count on.

“The overall upshot of how we make the selections is based on where voter turnout isn’t matching the demographics of the area,” said Nick Hutchins, a spokesman for Vote.org. “We want the vote to be accessible to everyone.”

A Leftward Disparate Impact

As a result, seemingly neutral efforts have a disparate impact that helps Democrats far more than Republicans.

“There’s a line of administration and politicking here, and unless you hit every constituent in the same way, it will have disproportionate effects,” said Ryan Williamson, co-author of the book, Nationalized Politics: Evaluating Electoral Politics Across Time.

The charities that fund voter registration have been created by an activist league with roots in community organizing from Barak Obama’s 2008 presidential candidacy.

“The proliferation of these nonprofits has accelerated in the last few years, and it was engineered by the Obama campaign in 2008,” Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told RCI.

That was two years after the nonprofit Arabella Legacy Fund was founded by former Clinton administration appointee Eric Kessler with a stated mission of “environmental preservation and protection.” Arabella’s application cited Bible verses to support its proposed environmental advocacy. In 2009 the group became the New Venture Fund, which has provided millions of dollars to voting nonprofits. Arabella became the for-profit Arabella Advisors, which handles strategy and management for New Venture and a host of other, similarly partisan nonprofit enterprises.

Courting, creating, and funding nonprofits by progressives is now a core Democratic Party strategy, one that has proven successful as Democrats have prevailed or outperformed historical expectations in national elections.

“They are after a new American majority, and that includes people of color, women, students, LGBT, and [progressives] have a strategy for each group,” said Ned Jones, deputy director of the conservative Election Integrity Network. “It’s all about registering voters and getting a ballot in their hands, and they know what they’re doing,”

Republicans, he said, are far behind. “The opposing team doesn’t have the funding, the structure or the system to do what progressives are doing.”

This article is republished, with permission, from RealClearInvestigations.

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