Non-profit

Center for Secure and Modern Elections (CSME)

Website:

www.modernelections.org

Formation:

2016

Type:

Elections Advocacy Organization

Project of:

New Venture Fund

The Center for Secure and Modern Elections (CSME) is a left-of-center advocacy organization created as a project of the New Venture Fund, a leading “dark money” pass-through funder and fiscal sponsor, to promote sweeping changes to the elections process, including state laws that automatically register voters at state agencies. [1] [2] CSME Action, the group’s lobbying arm, is a project of the Sixteen Thirty Fund, the 501(c)(4) “sister” nonprofit to the New Venture Fund.

The Center for Secure and Modern Elections represents itself as a bipartisan organization, but is funded primarily by left-of-center donors. [3] Its parent organization, the New Venture Fund, is part of a $731 million nonprofit network run by the consulting firm Arabella Advisors in Washington, DC. The New Venture Fund has been criticized by the New York Times for its “system of political financing, which often obscures the identities of donors,” as “dark money,” calling the network “a leading vehicle for it on the Left.” [4] Right-leaning critics have called it a major “dark money outfit” that serves as a way for left-leaning groups to anonymously funnel money toward various advocacy issues. [5]

The Center for Secure and Modern Elections primarily engages in advocacy and lobbying for “automatic voter registration” (AVR) laws that would  automatically register eligible individuals to vote when they acquire or renew a driver’s license, apply for social services, or otherwise interact with a state government agency.  The Center for Secure and Modern Elections has also opposed legislation intended to reduce voter fraud in Texas. [6]

CSME is closely connected with another left-of-center elections advocacy group, the Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL), which was criticized by liberal and conservative commentators for distributing $350 million in grants from billionaire Mark Zuckerberg to hundreds of county and city elections offices in the months leading up to the 2020 election. [7] [8] Critics allege that CTCL’s private funding of elections aided Democratic presidential nominee Joseph Biden in defeating incumbent President Donald Trump, largely by targeting key Democratic cities in swing states critical to the election outcome. [9]

Both CTCL and New Venture Fund (in its capacity as the parent organization of CSME) were sued by the Louisiana Attorney General in October 2020 for unlawfully interfering in the state’s 2020 election, “to prevent the injection of unregulated private money into the Louisiana election system,” identifying 13 parishes which were targeted for CTCL grants exceeding $500,000 per parish. [10] A state judge ruled against the state on October 26, 2020, on the grounds that the Attorney General’s office had “no cause of action” for the lawsuit. [11]

Founding and History

The Center for Secure and Modern Elections was first active in 2016[12] and was receiving financial support from other left-leaning organizations by 2017,[13] but it is unclear when CSME was first established.

As a project of the New Venture Fund, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that specializes in passing through grants from major left-of-center donors to activist nonprofits as well as fiscally sponsoring new activist organizations, CSME does not file IRS Form 990 reports and does not exist in the IRS’ nonprofit database. The Center for Secure and Modern Elections’ website provides no information regarding its staff, board of directors, founding, history, or relationship to New Venture Fund. [14]

Advocacy

Automatic Voter Registration

The Center for Secure and Modern Elections’ primary cause, automatic voter registration, differs from the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (the “Motor Voter Act”) by requiring qualified citizens be automatically registered to vote at state agencies  rather than simply being offered the opportunity to register. [15] In states with an AVR law, citizens are registered to vote unless they actively and explicitly refuse to be registered. Because they are registered automatically, citizens otherwise disinclined to vote are available to be persuaded to vote for candidates or causes in subsequent elections. [16]

The Center for Modern and Secure Elections has hired professional pollsters, consultants, attorneys, and lobbyists in many states as well as nationally to advance its automatic voter registration efforts. [17] [18] [19] [20] [21]

From 2017 through 2019, the Center for Secure and Modern Elections lobbied for automatic voter registration in Hawaii,[22] Nebraska,[23] New York,[24] Louisiana,[25] and Nevada. [26] CSME also collaborated with other left-progressive groups, participated in conferences, forums, and published reports[27] promoting automatic voter registration laws. [28] [29] [30] [31] [32]

Opposition to election security reforms

The Center for Secure and Modern Elections opposed legislation introduced in Texas in 2019 intended to improve election security. The legislation would have increased criminal penalties for providing false information on a voter registration application, increased the investigative powers of law enforcement over elections, and required those helping voters to fill out ballots to provide more information on what assistance they provide. [33] The Center for Secure and Modern Elections opposed the legislation, which was not enacted into law during the 2019 session. [34]

Voting Rights Tour

The Center for Secure and Modern Elections helped organize a ‘Voting Rights History Tour’ for a bipartisan group of elected secretaries of states in 2019. The tour of locations in Alabama with historical significance to voting laws was organized by the National Association of Secretaries of State, the left-leaning Ford Foundation, CSME, and two other left-progressive groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Democracy Fund. [35]

Controversies and Criticism

Unlawful Private Funding of Elections Lawsuit (2020)

On October 2, 2021, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry sued the New Venture Fund (the parent organization of CSME), the Center for Technology and Civic Life (an allied organization), and the consulting firm Full Circle Strategies (which represented both organizations locally) “to prevent the injection of unregulated private money into the Louisiana election system and to protect the integrity of elections in the State by ensuring against the corrosive influence of outside money on Louisiana election officials.” According to the lawsuit, “private contributions to local election officials are unlawful and contrary to the methods for election funding established by law in the State of Louisiana”; the Attorney General sought to have CTCL’s funding declared illegal and be permanently enjoined. [36]

The lawsuit alleged that CTCL and New Venture Fund (under the name “Center for Secure and Modern Elections”) had unlawfully “targeted 13 parishes” for elections grants, some of which exceeded $500,000, requiring local registrar’s offices to provide “detailed information about [their] operations, conduct, and expenses” in turn. These transactions were allegedly facilitated by Dawn Maisel Cole, the principal for Full Circle Strategies, who “directly solicited registrars and clerks of court to accept contributions from CTCL and New Venture for the operation of their respective offices.” Besides breaking state law, the Attorney General’s office argued that private funding of elections is barred by the Louisiana state legislature and U.S. Congress for “obvious” reasons: [37]

  1. The influence that would inevitably accompany private financial contributions to local elections officials;
  2. Outside donations to local election officials sow distrust in the administration of the election system;
  3. Private contributions would inevitably spawn competition for party and corporate control over local election funding and would lead to bidding for election favor by party and private interests;
  4. Private contributors are likely to be political parties or large corporations that have partisan and/or economic objectives to foster with their contributions to election officials;
  5. Private interests, as in this instance, fund particular parishes and particular aspects of the election that they believe advance their election goals and objectives;
  6. Should registrars and clerks become reliant upon private funding of their governmental activities, they may well be compelled to respond to the objectives of those providing the funding in order to ensure that the funding continues;
  7. Such private funding, washed through non-profit organizations, invites the potential for contributions from foreign governments to the Louisiana system and its election officials;
  8. Private contributions open the door to election suits and contests based upon perceived or actual influence on the part of local election officials in the conduct of an election.

A state judge ruled against the state on October 26, 2020, on the grounds that the Attorney General’s office had “no cause of action” for the lawsuit and it was dismissed. [38]

Funding

For more information, see New Venture Fund (Nonprofit) and Arabella Advisors (For-Profit)

The Center for Secure and Modern Elections was established as a project of the left-leaning New Venture Fund, which has been criticized as a “dark money” organization that does not publicly disclose donors. [39] New Venture Fund is a leading 501(c)(3) funder of activist groups on the Left, and is managed by the for-profit consultancy Arabella Advisors in Washington, DC.

Several left-wing organizations acknowledge supporting the CSME, including the Bauman Foundation, and the Democracy Fund, which is associated with the liberal billionaire Pierre Omidyar. In 2018, Democracy Fund donated $100,000 to CSME through its fiscal sponsor, New Venture Fund; in 2019, the 501(c)(4) Democracy Fund Voice donated $1 million to CSME Action, the group’s lobbying arm and a project of the Arabella-run Sixteen Thirty Fund, a “sister” nonprofit to the New Venture Fund. [40] [41] However, whatever monies these and other foundations have provided to CSME would be sent to New Venture Fund, its fiscal sponsor, as CSME has no legal status as a nonprofit corporation and does not exist in IRS nonprofit records. No information about the Center for Secure and Modern Elections is available on the IRS website for public inspection as of May 2021. [42]

Leadership

The Center for Secure and Modern Elections does not list its leadership, board of directors, or staff on its website. [43] Information about a nonprofit organization’s board and key staff is required by the Internal Revenue Service for tax forms which are available for public inspection, but the IRS has no documents available on its website for the Center for Secure and Modern Elections as of January 2020. [44]

Jake Matilsky

Jake Matilsky is director or president of the Center for Secure and Modern Elections. [45] [46] He is also an advisor for Vote At Home[47] (a labor-union funded[48] campaign to replace voting at polling stations with all-mail elections) and an independent consultant for left-progressive candidates and campaigns. [49] He donated to U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) in 2018; in FEC disclosures Matilsky listed his employer as New Venture Fund. [50]

John Lindback

John Lindback is senior advisor for the Campaign for Secure and Modern Elections. He was director of elections for Oregon’s secretary of state office for eight years and was chief of staff for former Alaska Lieutenant Governor Fran Ulmer (D). [51] [52]

Sam Oliker-Friedland

Sam Oliker-Friedland is chief counsel for the Campaign for Secure and Modern Elections. He is a former attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division who joined the department during the Obama administration and left after the election President Donald Trump. [53] [54]

Ashish Sinha

Ashish Sinha is implementation director for the Campaign for Secure and Modern Elections. He donated to Val Arkoosh, an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for Pennsylvania’s 13th congressional district, in 2014. [55] [56]

References

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