Not for the Faint of Heart: Geri Mannion on Civic Engagement in an Election Cycle
As the Director of the U.S. Democracy Program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Geri Mannion draws on her deep knowledge of the barriers to a participatory democracy and commitment to toppling those barriers. In 2010, The Nonprofit Times called her “a tireless advocate for deepening the nation’s civic dialogue and for nonprofit capacity building,” in part for her work establishing the Four Freedoms Fund, a project to energize democracy by supporting and engaging immigrants and refugees. AFJ’s Bolder Advocacy program talked with Mannion about how nonpartisan civic engagement work has changed over the years.
AFJ: What is the history of Carnegie Corporation’s commitment to civic participation?
Geri Mannion: I’ve been funding nonpartisan civic engagement at the Corporation since 1988, almost 25 years. And Carnegie Corporation has been engaged since the 1970s and 80s. We have an institutional commitment to support activities that encourage everybody’s vote to be counted, that ensure that those least likely to vote or have barriers in their way have their voice be heard in the civic process.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the barriers affected African Americans. Today, obstacles are also great for Latinos, Asian Pacific Islanders, and other immigrants, where the first step is supporting the naturalization process that gives immigrants the opportunity to apply for citizenship, with all the responsibilities and rights that it brings.
From the time the voting age moved from 21 to 18, the Corporation has also supported efforts to engage young people—our future leaders—in the civic and voting processes. These groups—people of color; young, low-income people; new, naturalized citizens—are often called “low-propensity voters.”
AFJ: What kinds of nonpartisan activity does Carnegie Corporation typically support in an election year?
Mannion: Through a donor collaborative housed at Public Interest Projects, the State Infrastructure Fund, the Corporation joins with other funders to support efforts aimed at reducing barriers such as onerous voter registration and voter ID requirements, educating voters about what they need to get ready to vote, and Getting-Out-the-Vote. Grantees include the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, Advancement Project, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil and Human Rights Under Law, the Center for Community Change, League of Women Voters Education Fund, Voto Latino, State Voices, and the National Council of La Raza.
This electoral cycle, we’d really like to elevate the work of the legal groups. They’re the backbone of the civic engagement effort; often not considered very glamorous or necessary. In fact, many foundations have reduced or stopped funding litigation. But it is the legal groups that have ensured that voting rights have been upheld in state after state this year, ensuring that millions of voters get a chance to have their voices heard.
Working in the democracy field is not for the faint of heart. For every step forward, we seem to go 10 steps back. We’ve consistently had to worry about ensuring voting rights are expanded, not limited. Language access for ballots in communities that have large numbers of bilingual voters has been an ongoing fight; states limiting the days on which voters can cast their ballots, unnecessary or burdensome voter ID requirements, and the lack of nonpartisan voter information on ballots or candidates are just a few other examples.
AFJ: It seems like every election there’s a greater variety of nonprofits getting involved in civic engagement activities. What’s your view?
Mannion: The Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP), a funder affinity group that has been active on this issue for almost 30 years, encourages all issue-based nonprofits and their funders to integrate nonpartisan voter engagement into their issue work. But this has not been an easy sell. An exception is environmental groups, which are very sophisticated and have long been working to educate voters on their issues. The League of Conservation Voters is a very good example in the environmental field, and this work ensures they have a very engaged base.
I am often surprised, though, by how many other issue funders avoid or discourage nonpartisan voter work by their grantees. For example, I would have thought that education, economic development, and climate change funders, for example, would encourage their constituents to be educated on their issues and to vote. As the Alliance for Justice has demonstrated through your technical assistance, private foundations can and should fund nonpartisan voter registration and education work, AND public charities should do this work.
But many nonprofits– and their funders — have this wariness about supporting even the most vanilla pieces of civic engagement and then pundits wonder why citizens don’t vote.
Nonprofits and funders both should integrate nonpartisan voter engagement activities in their respective work; it’s as American as the flag! And there is lots of academic evidence that citizens like to be encouraged to vote by trusted sources—and our nonprofits serve that role.
AFJ: We’ve talked about the legal groups, what are some of the other projects you’ve funded that have been particularly effective?
Mannion: I believe that the increased use of technology this election cycle, for example, is changing the way our citizens get information, register to vote, and are encouraged to turn out. Smartphone apps by Rock the Vote and Voto Latino, among others, are simplifying the electoral process for many, especially young people. Social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) is another tool that is being used to rev up our democracy.
On Election Day, many people have the same questions: Am I registered, where do I go to vote, etc. Now the information is just a few clicks away.
Another welcome addition to the civic engagement world are social service providers, who often can help citizens to better interact with issues that affect their daily lives. The Nonprofit Voter Engagement Network is an example of a nonprofit working to encourage these nonprofits to get more involved in civic engagement work.
I would also like to emphasize how so many of our grantees have collaborated and coordinated their work. Large numbers worked together to promote National Voter Registration Day on September 25. Others like National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil and Human Rights Under Law, Advancement Project, etc., are working together to ensure that voters are not turned away from the polls because of long lines, broken voting machines, misinformation, etc. Our grantees, and many others, are a wonderful example of collaboration on behalf of the American voting public.
AFJ: What do you say to other funders who are interested in supporting nonpartisan civic engagement projects?
Mannion: Fund them! Join us! There are lots of ways to get involved in this work. And through evaluations and other ways of ensuring the quality of those working in this area, there are many resources on the FCCP’s website that demonstrate the efficacy of this work. There is a body of knowledge. So many good and effective nonprofits working throughout the states and on multiple issues want to engage voters; but there is a need to ensure the funding is expanded to support the many groups who want to do this work, especially at the state level.
And, finally, most of the national civic engagement funders concentrate on efforts around federal and congressional elections, and then there’s a falloff in funding in the off-years. This is what’s commonly known as a cycle of “feast or famine” for the nonpartisan voter engagement groups.
What are often neglected are some of the most important elections in citizens’ lives: local elections. We need to move to supporting work at that level—and helping to educate voters on issues between elections—but we also need to broaden the number of funders who will support this work. If you believe in strengthening our democracy and ensuring all voters’ voices are heard, all funders should invest in this work. It should not be left to only a few funders: it should be every funder’s responsibility.