“How one of America’s most important voting rights groups plunged into chaos just before it was needed most”

Teddy Schleifer for ReCode:

A voting rights group called Vote.org seems like precisely the type of nonprofit that should thrive in 2020, with fans from Barack Obama to Taylor Swift and a URL that can’t be beat.

Its efforts to expand vote-by-mail — during an election year when more Americans are likely to do exactly that than ever before — should only make it more essential.

But the organization, which has established itself as one of the country’s most important civic engagement groups thanks to its research on how to turn out voters with absentee ballots and for its work to help defeat Alabama’s Roy Moore in 2017, has been derailed in recent months by an ugly internal drama featuring several of Silicon Valley’s most powerful personalities.

Last summer, Vote.org’s board fired founder Debra Cleaver and replaced her with one of the board members that ousted her. That presaged a bitter months-long war between Cleaver’s donors and her former board, and in its aftermath, at least three of Vote.org’s potential partnerships crumbled, millions in expected contributions fell through, and a series of embarrassing missteps tarnished the nonprofit’s brand.

Recode’s interviews with more than two dozen people, including Vote.org’s major donors, partners, and former board members and employees, along with two legal complaints submitted to the California attorney general, paint a portrait of a nonprofit that has been arrested in development. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time: Now that the coronavirus pandemic is likely to stress test the American election system — with voters waiting in five-hour lines in Wisconsin during the pandemic this month, for instance — the work of organizations like Vote.org, which says it “plans to turn out more than 5 million low-propensity voters” in 2020, is more important than ever.


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