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Progressive donor group announces campaign encouraging people of color to vote by mail

Processed mail-in ballots at the election office in Doylestown, Pa., in May, prior to the primary election.
Processed mail-in ballots at the Bucks County Board of Elections office in Doylestown, Pa., in May, prior to the primary election.
( Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

A network of deep-pocketed progressive donors is launching a $59-million effort to encourage people of color to vote by mail in November, a method of voting many Democrats view as crucial to turning out the party’s base during the coronavirus pandemic.

A nonprofit arm of the donor network Way to Win is working with philanthropic organizations including the Ford Foundation and George Soros’ Open Society to raise the money. The network has already donated $50 million this cycle, which has largely gone to groups in battleground states including Michigan, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Arizona.

But the group says more is needed because the coronavirus could alter the outcome of November’s presidential election. The pandemic has led to a shortage of poll workers and contributed to long lines at polling sites, forcing the closure of some.

“We need to meet the urgency of this moment ... we need everyone to keep their foot on the gas pedal,” said Nicole Boucher, a senior advisor to the group’s nonprofit, Way to Rise. “We’re challenging others and our partners in the sector to help fill critical funding gaps for communities of color, who have long been under-resourced in philanthropy.”

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They are in good company: Well-funded groups on both sides of the political divide have seized on the issue.

Though a key segment of the Republican electorate — older voters — has long relied on absentee voting, some in the party view broader access as a threat and have voiced worries that mail-in ballots are more susceptible to fraud. That includes President Trump, who tweeted last month that it will lead to “RIGGED ELECTIONS!” despite casting his own ballots by mail. Trump has a history of making false claims about massive voter fraud. A White House task force he set up in 2017 found no evidence of widespread fraud.

Trump has been candid about another reason he wants to fight mail-in ballots: He believes more voter participation could hurt Republicans’s election chances.

Democrats, meanwhile, have argued for increased funding and broad adoption of mail-in voting.

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Already a fierce battle is playing out in courts, where Democrats have notched a series of victories in recent years that have made it easier to vote. A network of conservative organizations allied with the Federalist Society recently joined the fight.

The efforts by Way to Win will be focused more on outreach and education. While people of color have embraced voting by mail in some states, that often isn’t the case in some key battlegrounds, group officials said.

Their aim is to fund organizations that already have a presence in these communities to educate voters on ways they can cast a ballot. They also plan to fund poll watchers to combat any efforts to suppress turnout among black and brown voters.

Way to Win, which was founded after Trump’s 2016 victory, presents itself as a progressive alternative to established Democratic organizations. It is largely funded by a network of women, including Susan Pritzker, a member of a prominent Democratic family that derives its fortune from Hyatt Hotels.

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African Americans are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and were critical to Joe Biden securing the party’s presidential nomination. But the group says black voters have too often been neglected when it comes to private philanthropy.

For black voters who lived through segregation, this election is the new front line for fairness

“It’s critical that donors and the philanthropic sector step up” and “correct a huge gap in philanthropic funding among communities of color,” Pritzker said.

By conducting broad outreach, Way to Win hopes to harness the energy that has been present in protests nationwide over racism, police brutality and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

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“Philanthropy has an obligation to invest in grassroots organizing and organizers leading the charge on racial justice, reproductive justice, and voter protection,” said Karen Grove, a Way to Win donor who is also chairperson of the Grove Foundation, which gave out $17 million in grants in 2017 and 2018.


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