I. In Focus This Week
Project Vote to close its doors on May 31
At critical time for voting rights, lack of funding leads to closure
By M. Mindy Moretti
Project Vote, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit that has spent recent years focusing its attention on improving voter registration, especially the enforcement of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) will officially close its doors on May 31.
Michael Slater, president since 2003, cited the lack of funding as the reason for the closure.
“[F]unding for voter registration programs declined precipitously after 2008, and the number of funders supporting voting rights advocacy and litigation slowly decreased as well,” Slater said. “At the same time, more organizations created voting rights programs, which resulted in more competition.”
Slater also pointed to the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to strike down the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act which resulted in the donor community focusing available voting rights resources on VRA enforcement, which had the effect of reducing funds for other work, such as Project Vote’s work enforcing the NVRA.
“Despite that changing environment, we were able for many years to continue to deliver on our mission to make sure the American electorate better reflected the needs and diversity of the American people,” Slater said.
For a single-issue nonprofit like Project Vote — without a diverse portfolio of work to fundraise on — the situation gradually become untenable.
“A reorganization of the civic engagement infrastructure, and donor uncertainty over how best to respond to the 2016 election, finally proved to be too much for us, and we were forced to conclude that our current model was unsustainable in this environment,” Slater said.
Project Vote’s shuttering comes at a time when voting rights are making headlines daily and Slater is concerned about what impact the closure may have.
“From our perspective, voting rights work has never been more important. We hae been warning for months that [President Donald J.] Trump’s absurd rhetoric about ‘voter fraud’ signaled a top-down assault on the right to vote in America,” Slater said. “The concern, of course, is that the remaining voting rights organizations, already spread thing, will be unable to keep up with this assault.
The news of Project Vote’s closure is slowly starting to spread throughout the elections community and it is being met with sadness.
“We're terribly saddened by the closing of Project Vote. It has been a great organization that has contributed significantly to the protection of the fundamental right to vote,” said Ezra Rosenberg, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Its role in ensuring the registration of all eligible voters was and remains of utmost importance. It is particularly unfortunate for this to happen at a time when voting rights are under tremendous attack.”
Project Vote was involved in many legal cases nationwide with some recent cases including reaching a settlement agreement with Maricopa County, Arizona, settling a suit with Georgia on access to public records Maricopa County, Arizona aas wellas an onling list maintenance case with a summary judgment deadline tomorrow in, ACRU v Snipes, in Florida.
“This is very sad news for voters,” said Rick Hasen, chancellor’s professor of law and political science at UC Irvine and author of the ElectionLaw Blog. “Project Vote has been a leader in making sure that states comply with the provisions of the motor-voter law making it easier for people to register and vote when they come into contact with government agencies. I hope that others can step in and help with this very important work.”
Thomas Hicks, commissioner on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission pointed to the groups’ work in Nevada in 2016 that resulted in a Memorandum of Understanding to bring the state into compliance with NVRA.
“I am sad they are going away,” Hicks said. “They do a great deal in terms of voter registration and I don’t know if there are folks out there to fill that void. In my own opinion, it’s horrible that an organization that does as much as they do will no longer exist.”
John Lindback, who is currently executive director of ERIC, but used to serve an elections official in Oregon and Alaska said that as an elections official, Project Vote was never far from his mind.
“When I served as an elections official I was keenly aware that Project Vote was watching and monitoring any actions by states that might adversely affect voting rights,” Lindback said. “Project Vote served as a constant reminder to elections officials that it was important, for example, to comply with the NVRA. Such groups are vitally important to any Democracy, including the U.S.A.”
Project vote has helped millions of Americans get registered to vote through their direct engagement project and they’ve trained countless organizations to run efficient, effective voter drives.
“My thought is, online voter registration is great, but it’s just one additional tool to get people registered to vote and you need groups like Project Vote out there actually doing the footwork,” Hicks said.
With its extensive library of advocacy materials, the Project Vote website will remain live for at least the next three years.
Moving forward, staff will be taking some time off to spend with family and reflect, but most will be looking for employment. According to Slater, there is a good possibility that many staff and a large portion of Project Vote’s program portfolio will move to peer organizations.
As for the future of Project Vote, while Slater isn’t optimistic, all hope is not necessarily lost.
“It is hard to un-ring that bell. The board, however, will be meeting to discuss whether there is a role for a reconfigured Project Vote in the future,” Slater said. “After all, the Project Vote of today is version 3.0 of something that started in 1984. Who’s to say that a Project Vote 4.0 won’t make sense in one or two years?”
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