Founded as a 501(c)(4) corporation and then a 501(c)(3) foundation in the late 1990s, Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) provides research and other support to progressive groups seeking to use state-level ballot referenda to change laws and constitutions, as well as using legal and activist tactics to block conservatives’ attempts to do the same. The organization’s revenue tripled from 2004 to 2012, to $2.4 million.
In 1996, the progressive group People for the American Way began BISC as a multi-group project. BISC filed as the 501(c)(4) nonprofit Ballot Initiative Strategy Center Inc. in 1998, allowing political lobbying, and as the 501(c)(3) Ballot Initiative Strategy Center Foundation in 1999, allowing the organization to accept tax-deductible donations.
BISC’s original emphasis on countering “right-wing ballot measures” has expanded to include a “rogues gallery” list of conservative activists and resources for tracking and responding to initiatives on a state-by-state basis. The organization has also increased its activity and resources for initiating ballot measures that advance left-of-center policies, such as the minimum wage, LGBT issues, and abortion access.
In that regard, BISC seeks to leverage the ballot initiative process more comprehensively to affect election turnout, maneuver politicians, and build progressive organizations’ voter lists and resources. With Republicans’ historic success at both the state and federal levels, BISC is promoting ballot initiatives as an area of focus to enact liberal policies and block conservative ones. This effort includes a “Victory 2020 program,” coordinating “a multi-cycle, multi-state strategy to move progressive ballot measures.”
The organization keeps its donor list private; known sources of donations to BISC, however, include a number of labor unions, left-leaning foundations, NARAL (formerly the National Abortion Rights Action League), and George Soros’s Open Society Foundations.
BISC also plays a role in shuffling money among progressive organizations. In 2014, for example, the foundation paid $131,500 to Planned Parenthood and $108,247 to Lake Research Partners for “research.”
BISC’s current executive director is Justine Sarver, whose total compensation from both BISC entities exceeds $175,000. In the past, Sarver worked for President Barack Obama during his campaign and transition, as well as a deputy chief of staff in the Department of Health and Human Services in President Obama’s administration. Before that, she worked for the American Civil Liberties Union in Northern California.
Other employees of BISC have experience working for labor unions, pro-abortion groups, and other progressive organizations.