By Susan Clark, Director of Programs, Gaia Fund
The skyrocketing sums spent by candidates to win elections and the paltry amounts spent to engage citizens as voters are contributing factors to low voter participation. This year nearly $10 billion is likely to be spent on the U.S. presidential election by parties, candidates and interest groups, while foundations will spend an estimated $200 to $300 million to improve civic participation.
The act of voting in elections is a fundamental act of participation in our democratic system, yet year after year millions of Americans fail to show up at the polls.
In June’s California Primary, the state had the makings of a surge in turnout — a competitive Democratic presidential contest, a highly visible and controversial Republican candidate, record numbers of registered voters — thanks in part to our new semi-automatic registration process — and massive media coverage. Yet, preliminary turnout numbers are disappointing: considerably higher than 2012, but well short of 2008 and the two previous presidential election cycles before that.
It is easy to become discouraged — the mendacity of many candidates and the dominance of big money in elections and lobbying contribute to increased public cynicism, and further decreases in voter turnout. Yet voting remains fundamental to the democratic process and to the functioning of an effective democracy.
Funders have crucial roles to play to support the democratic process by supporting civic efforts to increase voter participation, to stop illegal voter suppression and to promote alternative approaches to financing political campaigns — approaches that enable the constituents to finance campaigns and thus increase the accountability of elected officials to their constituents.
Even without spending any money, foundations can encourage all the NGOs we work with to educate their constituencies about registering, voting and participating in the political process — all on a nonpartisan basis.
Join the Bay Area Democracy Funders and Northern California Grantmakers on August 2nd for the program Election Special: Funding Structural Reform and Voter Engagement. Our three experts will discuss ways that grantmakers can help ordinary citizens participate in the political process as well as restore the core values of American democracy through an accountable election system that serves the public interest.
As Director of Programs for Gaia Fund, I am responsible for three programs: Jewish Life in SF, Sustainable Agriculture and Effective Democracy. I participate in the California Foodshed Funders and Bay Area Democracy Funders as well as NCG. Our program on effective democracy is especially salient in 2016.