How NEO’s State Infrastructure Fund is Protecting and Expanding Voter Rights

NEO Philanthropy is committed to uplifting the voices of marginalized communities and ensuring their voice is heard through civic engagement. The State Infrastructure Fund, a collaborative fund at NEO, seeks to increase engagement and protect voting rights among communities of color and other underrepresented communities by funding networks of local leaders and state-based, nonpartisan organizations who effectively engage their communities and work with national and state litigation organizations to protect the right to vote.

Tanya Clay House, the Senior Program Officer at SIF, manages the voting rights portfolio, including all of the national litigation and communications funding.

What motivates you to do this work?

I care deeply about making this country a better place for all people, and now, particularly for my children.  I believe the right to vote provides people with the ability to control their own destiny – to make the change they believe in. This country will only be as good as those who contribute to making it better, and we cannot relinquish this country to those not primarily concerned about equality of opportunity, racial justice and fairness, but only about self-indulgent priorities including financial profit and maintenance of privilege and power.

What does election protection mean?

It is the protection of the right to vote in any election free from unnecessary and/or discriminatory barriers. This term was created after the 2000 Presidential Election when voters once again became acutely aware of reinvigorated efforts of voter suppression that ultimately impacted the election of the President. This recognition resulted in the creation of the non-partisan Election Protection Coalition by People For the American Way, NAACP and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The term election protection then became synonymous with both non-partisan and partisan voter protection efforts from that point on.

What can the average person do to ensure their vote is protected?

Call the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline to check their voter registration status and find out their local deadlines. If someone is interested in helping in the coalition Election Protection efforts, they can volunteer to work the phone lines during the early voting period or on Election Day. This can also be done directly through the www.866OURVOTE.org website.

People can also volunteer to be a poll monitor to help voters at the polling place or even a poll worker (which is not through the EP Coalition efforts, but can be of enormous assistance to EP efforts since the average age of poll workers is in the 70’s).

Voter suppression has been in the news quite a bit. What are some ways you and the organizations you work with are fighting against it?

Messaging and communications is critical to both getting information out about the process and refuting myths ad misinformation. SIF is working with ReThink Media to train organizations in proper media and communications techniques and strategies as well as helping them with outreach with media.

Monitoring and oversight is also critical – particularly since the DOJ has effectively abrogated its responsibilities under this Administration to protect the right to vote. This means organizations must train staff and volunteers on how to identify potential voter suppression tactics, including polling place consolidation or elimination.

Lastly, litigation is important as both a preventative and remedial strategy. SIF currently funds 12 voting rights organizations as part of its post-Shelby Litigation Collaborative. These groups are leaders in the voting rights battle and are currently engaged in litigation challenging voter suppression schemes across the country.

How many litigations are you and SIF involved in? How important are they in protecting the right to vote?

The Litigation Collaborative currently is involved in more than 75 cases that are all important to protecting the right the vote because they are helping to eliminate unnecessary voter ID and citizenship requirements, racial gerrymandering that undermines the ability of minority voters to elect the candidate of their choice and discriminatory voter purging efforts that primarily impact people of color and low-income voters.

As the midterm elections approach, what are you most hopeful for?

People are energized. That’s important particularly since midterm elections are notorious for low-voter turnout. I’m hopeful that this increased energy suggests that voters will treat this election as important and will encourage family and friends to participate.

What is the biggest myth you are hearing about the upcoming elections?

The biggest myth that I confront is the belief that change will happen regardless of whether an individual participates in the democratic process. It’s imperative that every individual who is eligible takes advantage of their right to vote.

How is SIF working to engage and empower disenfranchised communities?

SIF has been going through a deliberate process to refine our strategy to best support and empower traditionally underrepresented and disenfranchised communities. This includes an updating of our overall strategic direction as well as our voting rights strategy so SIF can continue to be effective in its mission to expand and protect the civic engagement and voting rights of historically underrepresented communities.

Most recently, SIF sent additional funding to the field in support of both civic engagement and Election Protection work, primarily focused on the Rustbelt, South and Southwest of the country where the majority of historically disenfranchised people are located. SIF sent funding in the summer to help give organizations sufficient time to implement programs and not have to wait until the last minute as in previous elections.

SIF also plays a convening and collaborative role in helping to connect communities with resources that can support the internal and external work of groups, including staff communications training, leadership development and policy development. By supporting the infrastructure of local and state organizations, SIF is helping to build a sustainable foundation for communities and continue the necessary work toward progressive change and racial equity.

What is the biggest threat to an individual’s right to vote in 2018 and beyond?

I see apathy and ignorance of the process as being huge threats. If you do not know how things are supposed to work, you cannot identify when they are running off track. Additionally, misinformation campaigns directed at traditionally underrepresented communities and first-time voters.

For someone who has never experienced it, what can it feel or look like to have your voice suppressed?

It’s difficult for many of us to fully understand suppression or discrimination — until it actually happens to us, so let’s use a common task that many people engage in – buying online. After taking the time to find the right selection and going through the motions of entering your credit card data, the screen freezes. It then resets and tells you to re-enter your information. This happens three times so you decide to go to another site and purchase the item from there – however, this time while at the payment screen, it keeps rejecting your credit card but doesn’t tell you the reason why. You then try another site thinking that you can just try this again and use another payment method, but each time, there is a separate issue that prevents you from purchasing your item. This is understandably annoying and the frustration that you feel in wasting your time and not getting any resolution is only a small amount of the frustration a new citizen, recently enfranchised voter or any voter of color feels when they are continually confronted with new ways to stop them from voting.

Of course, being able to buy something online is not a protection guaranteed in this nation’s Constitution – but being protected against discrimination in voting is. Even after preparing to get around the tactics used in a previous election, new tactics are devised such as the removal of voters from the voting rolls simply because they failed to respond to junk mail. This constant reuse of old pre-Voting Rights Act tactics – now just updated to not appear blatantly discriminatory, or the reinvention of new tactics to target people of color has not subsided and will continue unless we as a nation are proactive in not just protecting the right to vote, but also reforming the electoral system to eliminate unnecessary barriers that prevent eligible voters from exercising their fundamental right.

To learn more about the work of The State Infrastructure Fund, click here.

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