Our Work
Civic Participation

Increasing Voter Turnout in an Unprecedented Election

SVCF partners and grantees came together to promote civic engagement in the historic 2020 election.

Close to 10 million Californians cast their ballots a week before Election Day. Locally, voter turnout was also staggeringly high.

Nearly 85% of registered voters in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties voted, and the typical gap in turnout between white voters and voters who are Black, Indigenous and people of color, and between low- and high-income communities, narrowed. Rarely has an electorate more closely resembled the community.

“This progress did not happen in a vacuum,” says Nicole Taylor, president and CEO of SVCF.

The high voter turnout and narrowed gap in racial and economic disparities are a testament to the efforts of SVCF’s local partners and grantees in San Mateo County and San Jose. They worked tirelessly to promote civic engagement by protecting the integrity of the election, getting out the vote, counteracting voter suppression and helping fight misinformation.

In December 2020, SVCF hosted a webinar featuring nonprofit organizations whose efforts were strongly focused in 2020 (and beyond) on civic participation, voter education and election integrity: the Center for Election Innovation & Research; the Center for Tech and Civic Life; Californians for Justice; and Vote.org. All received grants from SVCF in 2020 or in recent years. Their learnings and reflections are helping SVCF and others consider how philanthropy can nurture civic participation in the future.

An Unprecedented Year

Even before anyone had heard of COVID-19, election experts had expected the 2020 election would be challenging. “We had extensive efforts at foreign disinformation campaigns and concerns about the security of our election infrastructure, as well as resource issues,” says David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “And then the pandemic hit, and that brought a whole new range of issues.”

Becker’s organization, which is based in Washington, D.C., helped election officials all over the country secure their systems. The Center for Election Innovation & Research also helped build a narrative to educate people about the challenges of voting while also ensuring confidence in the process. The message: You’re going to be able to vote safely, your vote matters, and it will count.

Nearly 10 million
Californians cast their ballots a week before Election Day.
Almost 85%
Of registered voters in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties voted in the 2020 election.
Increase in youth voter turnout (those ages 18 to 29), compared to 2016.
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 Supporting Safe and Secure Elections

That message proved to be true, thanks to the efforts of local election officials, private and philanthropic organizations, and volunteers.

“The folks that we generally look to lead in a moment like this were largely absent or didn’t meet the moment — but everyday folks did, organizations did, and we came out and showed our resilience,” says Tiana Epps-Johnson, founder and executive director of the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which is based in Chicago.

One challenge was the rapidly shifting environment, with voting laws changing from state-to-state in real time. But Vote.org was there to help. The organization aims to simplify political engagement, making the process of registering or requesting an absentee ballot as easy as possible. It also runs large-scale get-out-the-vote programs nationwide.

“Radio, digital, billboards, texting — you name it, we do it, to follow the voter once they register or request their absentee ballot, all the way through,” says Andrea Hailey, CEO of Vote.org.

Over 10 million people signed up for Vote.org’s texting and email alert system, so the group could keep voters up-to-date as the pandemic forced changes to voting procedures.

Mobilizing the Youth

One of the most effective ways to increase voter turnout is through relational organizing — educating neighbors, friends and family about the issues on the ballot. In garnering support for California’s Proposition 15, which would have raised money for public schools and local governments by adjusting property taxes for large businesses, one local organization, Californians for Justice, organized high school students in San Jose and other parts of the state to connect with their communities. The goal: To encourage everyone eligible to vote to learn how their vote can change their communities. Even those who were not old enough to vote helped by encouraging parents and other voters to turn out, says Rosa De León, organizing director at Californians for Justice.

“We were overspent by millions of dollars in this campaign, yet we were able to mobilize many young leaders to make sure that they put forward the issues that were important for them,” De León says of the campaign.

Unfortunately, the campaign was not successful in passing the proposition. Still, its mobilization of young leaders was impressive, and showed clear results as California’s youth turnout (voters ages 18 to 29) increased 17% from 2016, nearly the highest in the country. Californians for Justice and other youth organizations have provided a model for future engagement efforts.

Philanthropy’s Role

One key lesson that came out of the 2020 election was the importance of early and regular support for philanthropic organizations engaged in election work. Historically, just a small percentage of philanthropic dollars have gone to support civic engagement. But with more donations, programs can hire the right staff, scale up and be prepared to make rapid changes when necessary.

For example, part of the Center for Tech and Civic Life’s plans for 2020 included developing a three-part cybersecurity training program that the federal government purchased to train local election officials. What wasn’t in the original plan was developing a dozen webinars on every single portion of how to administer an election in a pandemic. The Center was able to develop and deliver those. “Longstanding general operating support from philanthropy let us pivot to meet the moment,” Epps-Johnson says.

It’s vital to have resources in place long before an election happens — which, of course, requires money. “The early money that came in to Vote.org was crucial to our success, because without it, I couldn’t have hired the team that was able to execute at such a high level,” Hailey says.

Looking Ahead

Philanthropic funding of elections raises a fundamental question: Should philanthropy play such a large role — or any role at all — in elections?

“I think we’d all agree that Plan A is the government provides enough resources to support our democracy,” Becker points out. He hopes the 2020 election will spur more government support. Ideally, of course, future elections will not face pandemics or other emergencies. However, there is a long way to go to have smoothly running, well-funded elections.

“The question now is: How do we transition from the sort of triage mode that we’ve had to be in in 2020 to tap into this new possibility of the ways that we’ve come together and sustain that?” Epps-Johnson says.

Voter education is one important aspect, and one that should continue between elections, Hailey adds.

“We can all take a deep breath, but none of the problems are solved. We’re in for a long-haul fight in the next couple of years,” Hailey says.

Following the election, SVCF launched a Movement- and Power-building Fund to support organizations that are continuing civic engagement efforts in low-income communities and communities of color. The fund has already distributed nearly $1 million locally since the 2020 election and has bold plans to do more.