Dark money group spent $100M on voter turnout in 2020

An organization dedicated to turning out young voters and people of color spent more than $100 million delivering mail and digital notices to voters in 2020, delivering hundreds of thousands of votes from those who were likely to back President Biden last year.

The Voter Participation Center, a nonpartisan group based in Washington, raised $85 million and spent even more through 2020, according to tax filings reviewed by The Hill. That money is orders of magnitude larger than the $14 million it spent during the last presidential election, in 2016.

“At a time when in-person voter contact was sidelined for health and safety reasons, the Voter Participation Center really stood up and did the work that was needed to help register voters, to help voters learn about and sign up to vote by mail, and to educate voters on early voting in person, voting by mail and how to vote safely on election day,” said Tom Lopach, the group’s chief executive.

Though the group does not advocate for specific candidates, it targets what Lopach calls the new American majority — younger voters, minorities and unmarried women, all voting blocs that overwhelmingly favor Democrats. Together, those voters make up 60 percent of those who are eligible to vote, though they all turn out at lower rates than average.

Lopach is a former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and a former chief of staff to Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and ex-Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D).

In an interview, Lopach said the group had delivered 371 million pieces of mail during the 2020 election cycle, urging voters to sign up to vote by mail or to turn out to vote early. They delivered another 300 million digital messages, through advertising and email.

“The work of voter turnout in 2020 was very clear because of the pandemic. 2021 presented any number of challenges and efforts to disenfranchise voters from the new American majority and our intent is to continue smart, broad mail and digital voter registration and turnout efforts,” Lopach said.

Lopach said the group had helped 1.6 million people register to vote and another 4.5 million people apply for mail-in ballots. He estimated that 272,000 people had voted who might not otherwise have cast a ballot because of the group’s work.

Those ballots may have been enough to deliver key states to Biden, who won swing states like Arizona, Wisconsin and Georgia by only a few tens of thousands of votes.

About 100 million Americans voted early in 2020, far higher than any previous election in history. More of those early voters backed Biden than former President Trump, who spent months casting doubt on early and absentee voting, to his own strategists’ chagrin. A Pew Research Center survey conducted last November found 58 percent of Biden voters cast their ballot early, compared with just under a third of Trump voters.

Some Democratic strategists credited the Voter Participation Center with turning out the voters who put Biden in the White House.

“The 2020 landscape presented enormous challenges for Democrats and progressives, without the usual advantage of in-person organizing,” said Tom Bonier, who heads TargetSmart, a Democratic analytics firm. The Voter Participation Center “played a key role in expanding the electorate, resulting in record turnout, generally through innovative voter registration and engagement programs.”

The group is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, meaning it does not have to detail the sources of its revenue. Lopach declined to name the donors or organizations who funded its work.

“We have been fortunate to have strong support from foundations, organizations who believe in voter participation and private individuals, but we do not disclose our donors,” he said.

The Voter Participation Center is one of a constellation of dark money organizations that fund election-related projects without having to disclose the source of their funding. Hundreds of millions of dark money dollars flowed into the 2020 elections, benefitting and attacking both Biden and Trump as well as virtually every prominent candidate running for seats in the Senate and the House.

Much of that money isn’t even publicly identified until months or years after an election, because those groups do not have to file reports with the Federal Election Commission. Instead, it only becomes clear that the groups exist or have spent the money in filings with the IRS.

The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks dark money in politics, has identified more than $30 million spent on last year’s presidential contest — an amount that does not include the Voter Participation Center or other groups that have not yet filed with the IRS.

Tags dark money Donald Trump election 2020 Joe Biden Jon Tester Steve Bullock Young voters

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