Influential suffrage group Vote.org faces lawsuit
For more than a decade, Debra Cleaver has led one of the nation’s most prominent suffrage organizations. Now she is chasing him.
In California Superior Court on Thursday, Cleaver filed a lawsuit against Vote.org, which she founded in 2008, for wrongful termination and other charges in an effort to regain control of the nonprofit. who fired her three years ago.
The lawsuit, disputed by Vote.org, is the latest installment in a saga surrounding the online voter registration group that has partnered in previous elections with the likes of barack obamathe NAACPand the National Basketball Association. Its unrivaled URL has made it a go-to destination for celebrities looking to increase voter turnout; an Instagram post by Taylor Swift in 2018, for example, helped the site register more than 65,000 voters in less than 24 hours.
But now the woman who started the voter advocacy group is pushing him into a legal dispute at a time when his services are needed most – less than three months before a midterm election, when voter turnout is typically at lower.
“I have dedicated my career to protecting our democracy and years of my life to building Vote.org“While it pains me to bring this costume, Cleaver told TIME, our democracy is fragile and we cannot let a small group of privileged insiders come forward at its expense.”
The 45-page complaint alleges the Vote.org board fired Cleaver in August 2019 because she raised concerns that the board was offering a $40,000 severance package to an employee. who voluntarily resigned. According to Cleaver, the board was not authorized to make such a decision and she said the payment came from the organization’s charitable funds, which she said constituted misappropriation. In Cleaver’s account, the board fired her as CEO after she threatened to notify state and federal authorities of the severance deal.
Vote.org, however, has a different story; he categorically denies any wrongdoing and says the allegations in Cleaver’s lawsuit are “baseless”, according to a spokesperson for the group who declined to be named. “It’s disappointing that a former leader, who claims to support our work to ensure that all eligible Americans can vote, is instead focused on personal grievances,” the spokesperson told TIME.
The spokesperson claimed Cleaver was fired not because of her threat to report severance, which Vote.org said was legal and justified, but because of her erratic and abrasive personal behavior. They added that Cleaver was removed as head of the organization by a unanimous vote of the group’s board “for conduct witnessed and documented by several people”.
“Cleaver’s behavior became a hindrance and alienated employees,” the spokesperson said. “The board stands by its decisions to remove Ms Cleaver, choose her successor and award severance pay to the employees.”
Cleaver’s lawsuit also alleges that the severance package violated rules regarding charitable trusts and other IRS violations. “This case is about a vengeful board that retaliated against one of its own when it threatened to expose fiduciary malfeasance,” Phil Andonian, Cleaver’s attorney, told TIME.
The suit asks for the current board to be dissolved and for Cleaver to be compensated for damages and back pay, and reinstated as CEO.
The internal imbroglio won media attention in April 2020, shortly after the pandemic hit the country’s shores and it became increasingly clear that the country should expand postal voting to preserve ballot access in the presidential election without risking spread the deadly virus. Vote.org, which bills itself as “the nation’s largest non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) Vote Recording and Getting the Vote (GOTV) technology platform,” was the one of the organizations best equipped to help millions of Americans register to vote by mail.
“In 2020, we have seen an increased reliance on any type of service provided to the public online,” said Tammy Patrick, election administration expert at the Democracy Fund. “We’ve seen huge increases in online shopping. We’ve seen huge increases in online grocery orders. Any online service provided to the public during a quarantine and a global pandemic has been amplified. Anything that would hamper any of these opportunities would negatively impact voters who turn to this platform for this service.
“I mean, it’s the best URL,” adds Patrick, referring to Vote.org. “That’s exactly the kind of thing someone would look for in their search engine.”
The infighting at Vote.org led several high-profile backers, many with close ties to Silicon Valley, to withdraw their support. In some cases, donors attempted to leverage their continued financial support to keep Cleaver in charge of the organization. Startup guru Sage Weil offered the group a $4 million donation, but only on the condition that Cleaver remain CEO, Vox reported at the time.
It did not work. Shortly after leaving Vote.org, Cleaver founded VoteAmerica, another voter mobilization project that focuses on training low-propensity voters.
Cleaver was an advocate of mail-in voting long before it was fashionable. She founded Vote.org, originally called Long Distance Voter, in 2008 to help voters learn how to vote by mail. Before long, hundreds of thousands of people were visiting the site every month. The organization got the break it needed in 2015, when the Knight Foundation awarded it a substantial grant. Cleaver then renamed the group to Vote.org and it took off. In 2016, the site helped about 600,000 Americans register to vote.
The lawsuit is troubling for other suffrage activists, who believe 2022 is a prime time to protect the right to vote. Last year alone, 19 states passed 34 new laws restricting access to the right to vote, according at the Brennan Center for Justice.
“Would that hurt their fundraising? asks Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, a nonprofit voter advocacy organization in the highly contested Peach State. “I do not know.”
Ufot, who has partnered with Cleaver in previous voter mobilization efforts, told TIME she could not comment on the merits of the complaint, but believes the issue needs to be resolved so that both parties involved can focus on the election. “They’ve been in the press before and it didn’t affect their ability to walk and chew gum,” she tells Vote.org. “I just think it’s a matter that needs to be sorted out.”
Vote.org, for its part, insists that the legal fight will not prevent the organization from fulfilling its mission during a substantial midterm season, when voter turnout will help determine the balance of votes. powers in Washington and in state houses across the country.
The Vote.org spokesperson claimed that “one in five voters” use the organization’s tools, including registering to vote, requesting an absentee ballot or identifying a polling station.
“As we work to secure America’s future, we will also show these allegations to be baseless,” the spokesperson said.
More Must-Have Stories from TIME