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How Philanthropy Can Protect Civic Participation and Access During COVID-19

Friday, July 10, 2020

As we approach the November election, nonpartisan civic engagement will be one of the most potent tools foundations can use to advance their social missions and build a democracy that people believe in. Protecting our democratic institutions is even more urgent as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to create unprecedented challenges to civic participation with the growing concerns around voter turnout, physical distancing, and the spread of misinformation. 

To address these emerging challenges, Philanthropy California hosted Protecting Access to California’s 2020 Election and Beyond and convened Cathy Cha from Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, Connie Malloy from the Panta Rhea Foundation, James E. Woodson from the California Calls Education Fund and the Honorable Alex Padilla, Secretary of State for the State of California. Our panelists shared the latest information on California’s new, expanded vote-by-mail system, voter education and engagement efforts, and innovative ways community organizations are addressing emerging challenges to civic engagement. Below, you will find an overview of California’s new vote-by-mail system and critical actions funders can take to protect civic participation and access during the COVID-19 pandemic. 


California has issued an executive order directing counties to mail every eligible voter a ballot in advance of the November election. Voters will have the option of either returning their ballot by mail via a prepaid envelope, delivering it to a secure drop-box before the election, or dropping it off in-person on the day of the election. As much as the state is encouraging people to vote-by-mail, voters will still have the option of voting in-person. California is working to ensure that people have as many safe, in-person voting opportunities as possible, on and before the election date, and that people still have the other needed supports around accessibility issues, language assistance, same-day registration, ballot replacements, and more. For those who aren’t mailing in their ballots, the exact days and locations for in-person options will vary depending on their county. Still, for most people, it will happen throughout Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and election day itself. 



As California has expanded its vote-by-mail efforts, there has been an increase in national rhetoric meant to create skepticism, fear, and illegitimacy around the vote-by-mail system. This misinformation will only intensify as the general election approaches. Philanthropy can help people navigate the noise and confusion by partnering with organizations working to educate people on the latest voting systems and solve urgent challenges. This support can range from ensuring that people understand that their mail ballot needs to be signed to be valid to also providing language-appropriate training and materials for a variety of non-English speaking communities. California Calls has identified that it takes multiple touches to shift people’s behaviors around voting-by-mail, and they are now brainstorming the most effective ways to utilize PSA’s, digital events, and voter training to ensure that people understand and trust the vote-by-mail process. Also, since inactive voters will not receive vote-by-mail ballots, voter education campaigns will need to remind people to verify their registration status to receive their ballot. 



All of California’s voter education efforts must be translated into multiple languages to be more representative of our state’s communities of color. Without access to multilingual information, it will be challenging for people to adopt the new voting structures and navigate the clouds of misinformation, which in turn will lead to lower voter participation and reduced confidence in the upcoming election. To address the need for culturally appropriate messaging and materials in languages other than English, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr Foundation, the California Community Foundation, and the University of California Riverside’s Center for Social Innovation are developing and testing vote-by-mail messages in various languages. These organizations will hold multiple community feedback sessions across the state, before sending the approved messages to the 58 county registrars by the Secretary of State. This partnership highlights the role philanthropy can play in ensuring that all voters, regardless of their language proficiency, will be well equipped and informed for not only the upcoming election. Also, if successful, similar public-private partnerships may enable more profound civic education and outreach in topics such as the Census, redistricting, COVID-19 resources, and more. 



Philanthropy can dramatically increase the government’s reach. For example, with the Census, the philanthropic sector helped extend the Census Bureau’s outreach by leaning into its network of trusted community partners, including organizers, health clinic staff, faith leaders, neighbors, and others to help spread its importance to community members. Nonprofit partners are trusted advisors in communities across the state that can help drive civic engagement in the communities they serve. Additionally, many people are intimidated by hefty voting guides, long lists of judges, and confusing propositions and are afraid of making a mistake. Nonprofits can help educate communities on what’s on their ballot as long as they remain compliant with their 501(c)(3) status



Since 2016, over 400,000 young people ages 16 and 17 have pre-registered to vote in the state of California. Those young people that are now of voting age will experience their first general election amid a pandemic. Philanthropy can play a role in ensuring that these first-time voters turn out in November and that their first-voting experience is a positive one that will convert them into regular voters. One way to do this is to help shift away from heavy messaging rooted in responsibility and democracy and to instead be creative in adopting new technologies like text messaging and partnering with influencers and celebrities to motivate young people to vote. For example, the Creative Artists Agency Foundation, an SCG member, has been committed to youth voter engagement through their “I am a voter” campaign, which seeks to create a cultural shift around voting and civic engagement. 



The new self-response deadline for the 2020 Census is October 31, 2020, which is a few days before the election. There is an opportunity to run parallel campaigns that highlight how interconnected the Census, redistricting, and voting are as vital components of civic engagement. For example, California Calls is evaluating how to use their current census infrastructure to do more voter outreach to engage, educate, and motivate new and infrequent voters among young people, from communities of color, and poor and working-class neighborhoods. To do this, they are tapping into their African-American civic engagement initiative, the Black Census and Redistricting Hub, which is a group of 35 Black-led organizations across the state currently focused on census outreach in Black communities. 



Counties need help preserving in-person polling opportunities from a volunteer and facility standpoint. Many seniors and retirees who have volunteered on election day in the past will not be available this year. Philanthropy can tap into its network and help recruit a new generation of poll workers to keep these locations running. Also, with the need for physical distancing, polling locations can no longer contain 30 side-by-side voting booths. There is a need for polling locations with enough square footage to allow people to vote safely in November. Funders can recommend or help acquire facilities where safe in-person polling can take place. 



If you come across wrong or misleading voter information, you can visit and share it with the Office of Election Cybersecurity. This office has established successful protocols with social media platforms to halt the spread of misinformation. Funders can always help to direct people to California’s voter hotline at 1-800-345-VOTE or to check their voter status, debunk myths, and access resources and tools to answer their questions.


Philanthropy California has also produced an informational elections funding guide for funders who are interested in investing in and supporting civic participation across California.

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Special Initiatives