Over the last several months, a growing number of Republicans, including Donald Trump himself, seem to be having a change of heart about universal mail-in voting and ballot harvesting.
While few Republicans are ready to completely abandon policies that support election integrity and transparency, more and more seem willing to follow the old adage “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” and suggest that Republicans become significantly more reliant on universal mail-in voting and ballot harvesting to win elections. There is no worse idea in politics today.
Conservatives do not have the institutional or financial support to match Democrats in election activism and ballot harvesting, nor are they likely to be able to any time in the near future. The advantages Democrats have accrued over the last 20 years in election manipulation and “lawfare” are nearly insurmountable.
But this is not necessarily a portent of gloom and doom. The growing number of ultra-left Democratic candidates are deeply unpopular and would be unelectable outside deep-blue areas under the election norms that prevailed prior to the Covid-19 lockdowns and the 2020 presidential election.
Democrats’ performance in 2020 and 2022 would almost certainly have been far worse under conditions that involved persuading voters to go to the polls on Election Day, rather than relying on a complex web of wealthy nonprofits and armies of election activists to churn out mountains of mail-in ballots, submitted by indifferent voters, during greatly extended early voting periods.
Raw Institutional Power
Republicans need to better understand the vast institutional power that is arrayed against them on the left in the form of lavishly funded 501(c)(3) nonprofits and charitable foundations, along with legions of election lawyers, data analysts, and election activists.
Consider the shadowy Arabella Advisors, a nonprofit consulting company that guides the strategy, advocacy, impact investing, and management for high-dollar, left-leaning nonprofits and individuals. Arabella provides these clients a number of services that enable them to enact policies focused on left-of-center issues such as election administration and “voting rights.”
Arabella Advisors also manages five nonprofits that serve as incubators and accelerators for a range of other left-of-center nonprofits: the New Venture Fund, the Sixteen Thirty Fund, the Hopewell Fund, the Windward Fund, and the North Fund. The New Venture Fund was the second-largest contributor, behind Mark Zuckerberg, to the Center for Tech and Civic Life in 2020. The Sixteen Thirty Fund spent $410 million during the 2020 election cycle, which was more than the Democratic National Committee spent.
These nonprofits have collectively supported hundreds of left-wing policy and advocacy organizations since the network’s creation. In 2020, Arabella’s nonprofit network boasted total revenues exceeding $1.67 billion and total expenditures of $1.26 billion, and paid out $896 million in grants largely to other left-leaning and politically active nonprofits.
There is no comparable organization with anything close to this level of financial clout in the Republican world.
Beneath philanthropic foundations and holding companies such as Arabella, there is a world of left-of-center 501(c)(3) nonprofits focused on elections. The Caesar Rodney Election Research Institute has identified at least ten 501(c)(3) nonprofits that we believe played key roles in the 2020 election on behalf of the Democrat Party.
These groups were already in place and ready to implement strategies calculated to give Democrats an electoral advantage long before state-by-state legal barnstorming transformed the norms of American voting systems in the name of Covid-19.
Some of these groups are mainly policy-oriented, focused on increasing Democrat votes by promoting vote-by-mail, ballot drop box initiatives, extended early voting periods, and the relaxation of voting standards such as voter ID. These organizations ranged from local efforts such as the New Georgia Project to national projects like Democracy Works, The Voter Project, and the National Vote at Home Institute.
Another group of nonprofits sprang into action in 2020 to finance the implementation of the Democrats’ election agenda, including hiring new personnel, voter canvassing, ballot harvesting, new election infrastructure such as ballot drop boxes, targeted public relations campaigns, and expensive ballot “curing” efforts.
These organizations, which ended up spending well more than $400 million in 2020, include the now infamous Mark Zuckerberg-funded Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), the Center for Secure and Modern Elections (CSME), and the Center for Election Innovation and Research (CEIR), among others. Once again, there is no similar complex of election-oriented institutions in the Republican world.
Democrats’ ‘Election-Industrial Complex’
These organizations are not arms of political campaigns nor “dark money” partisan advocacy groups, both of which are normal parts of the traditional electoral process. They have nothing to do with persuading voters or “getting out the vote” in the traditional sense, but are instead devoted to gaining an advantage for Democrat candidates by changing election laws, manipulating the election process, and promoting new voting technologies.
This complex web of lavishly funded nonprofits and foundations is not just large and extremely powerful: It is without comparison on the right.
The institutions that support the left’s election activism are so large and so powerful, one might refer to them as an “election-industrial complex.” Election activism is a multi-billion-dollar per year business in the world of Democratic Party politics.
The Democrats’ election-industrial complex burst into full view in 2020 with CTCL’s $332 million Covid-19 Response Grant Project, funded almost entirely by Facebook founder Zuckerberg, which was aimed at gaining control of election offices in areas that were critical to Democrat campaigns in 2020 through large, “strings attached” grants.
The bulk of that money was spent in a sophisticated effort to increase turnout among a specific profile of voter in order to benefit Democrat candidates. All large CTCL grant recipients were required to “encourage and increase absentee voting” mainly through providing “assistance” in absentee ballot completion and the installation of ballot drop boxes, and to “dramatically expand strategic voter education & outreach efforts, particularly to historically disenfranchised residents.”
It has yet to sink in among many Republicans that the CTCL, and the myriad other election activist nonprofits they partnered with in 2020 to carry out their plans, represent a substantively different challenge than Democrats outspending Republicans in conventional election spending.
The sudden rise to prominence of these institutions represents a paradigm shift in the way elections are organized, away from persuading and motivating voters, and toward manipulating the election process, introducing new voting rules, and supporting voting technologies that benefit Democrats and handicap Republicans.
This is the paradigm that many Republicans now propose to embrace, with virtually no institutional or financial support.
Conservatives Must Rebuild Classic Electoral Norms
Conservatives are supposed to be involved in conserving things, and there are few things more worth conserving than the U.S. election system as it has existed throughout most of American history. U.S. elections used to be the envy of the world even 10 years ago, but since then have deteriorated to the point where a large and growing proportion of the population views election results with deep skepticism.
Viewing the grotesque Covid-19 era distortions in the present electoral landscape as an unalterable fait accompli means abandoning our election system to a vast institutional complex that seeks to make the voting booth a relic and Election Day an anachronism.
Even worse, the left’s election-industrial complex seeks to reshape voting into a private activity, to be undertaken at home at the initiative of community organizers and activists, as opposed to a public activity that takes place in a neutral public square, and which relies on the initiative of the voters. In the liberal election utopia, the sanctity of the voting booth and the secret ballot must give way to the collective intimacy of the kitchen table and the oversight of neighborhood political bosses.
For Republican activists to commit to a long-term strategy of universal mail-in voting and ballot harvesting would not only be a losing proposition from a practical standpoint, it would also contribute even further toward the transformation of our political system away from the control of civically engaged voters, and toward the consolidation of control in the hands of a small cadre of partisan activists and community organizers, as well as their numerous partners in the nonprofit world and administrative state.
There is a larger argument to be made, that universal absentee ballots and ballot harvesting must be opposed, not just from a practical standpoint, but also from a moral and philosophical point of view. We will have much more to say in the future about how universal mail-in ballots represent an objectively disordered way of deciding elections, which must therefore be unconditionally opposed.
Joseph Arlinghaus is the president and founder of Valor America, a conservative federal election SuperPAC founded in 2016 to use the latest social science research and randomized controlled election experiments that revolutionized the Democratic election world after 2005. He serves on the advisory board to the Caesar Rodney Election Research Institute. William Doyle, Ph.D., is research director at the Caesar Rodney Election Research Institute. He specializes in economic history and the private funding of American elections.