The Voter Participation Center is a left-of-center voter registration nonprofit that was founded in 2003 as Women’s Voices Women Vote, changing its name in 2011 and expanding its mission to become the Voter Participation Center.   The group initially focused on registering the strongly Democratic-leaning voting bloc of single women to vote; today, the group organizes registration of numerous Democratic-leaning voting populations.
Since 2004, the Voter Participation Center claims to have “signed up 2.7 million voters.” However, the group’s efforts have been criticized for being imprecise, misleading, ineffective, and potentially illegal. Moreover, the group’s ties to the Clinton family and the liberal agitation group MoveOn.org have drawn questions about the group’s purported non-partisanship.
The Voter Participation Center was founded under the name “Women’s Voices Women Vote,” a 501(c)(3) charity focused on registering single women to vote. Page Gardner, a former Democratic operative whose first race was the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s (D-Massachusetts) 1980 presidential bid, and her friend Chris Dresser founded the original Women’s Voices Women Vote group. John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman and a senior aide to President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama, was also said to have “helped launch the Women’s Voices Women Vote prior to the 2004 presidential election and later served on the board.”
In 2011, Women’s Voices Women Vote officially “renamed itself the Voter Participation Center to reflect a portfolio formally broadened after 2008 to cover the so-called “Rising American Electorate”—a set of liberal voting blocs including single women, young people, and newly naturalized citizens that some progressives believe will create the “Emerging Democratic Majority.” In conjunction with the name change, Voter Participation Center enlarged its voter registration focus beyond just women to “unmarried women, minorities and millennials.”
Voter Participation Center, formerly known as Women’s Voices Women Vote, has a repetitive protocol for registering voters that follows a number of steps.
- The first step is for Voter Participation Center to send “a letter to the state elections board, warning of a likely surge in registration applications.”
- The second step is to issue “press releases to news outlets.”
- The third step is robocalls “alerting targeted likely voters that a registration mailer is coming.”
- The fourth is the mailer itself.
In the 2012 and 2014 elections combined cycle Voter Participation Center “touted the distribution” of some 10 million registration forms across 25 states “targeting “unmarried women, African-Americans, Latinos and young adults.”
In 2016 the Voter Participation Center planned “to mail more than 7.4 million voter registration forms to residents in 13 states: Georgia, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.”
It should be noted that “many of the Voter Participation Center mailings have gone astray, reaching already registered voters, the deceased, family pets, convicted felons, children, and non-U.S. citizens.”
Since 2004, the Voter Participation Center claims to have “signed up 2.7 million voters.”
During campaign years the Voter Participation Center issues quarterly mailings, with each mailing having a “randomized experimental” mailings that test various ways of packaging a registration form, adjusting everything from cover letter language to envelope typography.”
These direct mail programs say a number of things such as, “you’re not registered to vote. Your mailing address is incorrect. Or something needs to be updated on your voter registration, fill out the attached form and mail it.”
2020 Election Cycle
In March 2020, Tom Lopach became CEO of both the Voter Participation Center and Center for Voter Information, both founded by Page Gardner, another longtime Democratic operative who formerly worked for Ted Kennedy. 
Under Lopach’s direction, VPC and CVI launched an aggressive campaign over the summer of 2020 to promote absentee ballots and mail-in voting for the 2020 elections. The organizations sent out millions of mailers to battleground states, resulting in 939,000 registration applications and 2 million vote-by-mail applications.  By the end of the 2020 election cycle, Lopach’s group had sent ballot applications to 15 million people in swing states, nearly one-third of which were returned. 
Controversies and Criticism
Mailing Fraudulent Absentee Ballots
In the months leading up to 2020 election, CVI and its 501(c)(3), the Voter Participation Center (VPC), were widely criticized for mailing out partially pre-filled absentee ballots and voter registration forms in multiple states.
Fairfax County, Virginia, published a warning “about an inaccurate and potentially misleading mailing from the Center for Voter Information” in August 2020, noting that the group had mixed up the City of Fairfax with neighboring Fairfax County: 
This group is mass mailing pre-filled, absentee ballot applications to county voters without their request—and the mailer includes return envelopes to send the application to the City of Fairfax, not Fairfax County.
“This mailing is causing great confusion and concern among voters who have been contacting our office,” said Fairfax County General Registrar Gary Scott. “While the mailing may appear to be from an official government agency, the Fairfax County Office of Elections did not send it.”
The mailing is also confusing voters who have previously submitted absentee ballot applications themselves, Scott added. These voters are worried that their applications were not received, leading them to think they need to apply again [emphasis original].
The Virginia Democratic Party wrote a public letter to the chairman of the Virginia State Board of Elections complaining that CVI’s absentee ballot mailers in Virginia “contain several errors,” confusing “Fairfax City and Fairfax County, Franklin City and Franklin County, Richmond City and Richmond County, and Roanoke City and Roanoke County.” According to the letter, CVI’s mailers also “contained incorrect middle initials or names for an unknown number of voters,” including that of the chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia’s Voter Protection Council. 
The Washington Post called CVI a “voter registration group with a history of sending error-ridden mailers” and criticized the group for having “again sown confusion in Virginia, this time tapping into concerns about mail-in-ballots sparked by President Trump’s repeated allegations . . . of election fraud.” The Post noted that while CVI and VPC are officially “nonpartisan,” “both organizations appear to be more aligned with efforts to defeat the president than with his allies.” 
Archived examples of VPC/CVI absentee ballot mailings have been identified by the Capital Research Center in the following states:
- Pennsylvania (archived here)
- Georgia (archived here)
- Wisconsin (archived here)
- North Carolina (archived here) – identified by Catawba County, NC as “an example of a third-party pre-filled request form that is invalid”
In North Carolina, local reporters wrote about the deceptive nature of Voter Participation Center’s mailers: “It is important to know while the form looks official and claims it needs your attention right away, it is not from any government agency.”
In Florida, Chris Cate, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times that the state was “evaluating whether there is way to prevent Voter Participation Center from sending such confusing letters, which are frequently going to ineligible voters and making many Floridians think the letters came from our department.” The Florida secretary of state’s office said it “contacted the organization” and “expressed [its] very serious concern that [VPC was] misleading voters, offered to provide them the complaints sent to the department about their mailings, and asked that they make a concerted effort to improve their lists so that only eligible voters who aren’t registered are being contacted.”
A comparable situation has occurred in New Mexico, where Ken Ortiz, the chief of staff at the New Mexico secretary of state’s office, said, “Some noncitizens have contacted the state asking why they received the forms when they’d previously been told that they could not vote.” Ortiz continued, stating that “We fear that some of these individuals who receive this mailing may feel that they are being encouraged to vote by our office or county government.”
In 2016, Assistant Attorney General Anna Birkenheier, counsel to the Virginia Department of Elections, wrote to the Voter Participation Center expressing concern “that the mailing had caused “significant voter confusion and concern.” Bikenheier wrote, “some of the letters are going to people who are, indeed, registered at their current addresses, and the letters are creating confusion. Some were sent to the deceased. Some went to commercial addresses in Virginia.” Birkenheier encouraged VPC to “check their mailing lists.” 
Voter Participation Center has “[acknowledged] that the databases it uses to contact possible voters are imperfect because they are developed from commercially collected information.” In response to criticisms the Voter Participation Center “says it expects people who receive misdirected mail to simply throw it away.”
Potentially Illegal Methods
In 2012, Kathryn Biber, the general counsel for the Presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), contended “that the center’s mass mailing may have violated [Virginia] laws, including those that prohibit falsifying a registration application and communicating false information to voters about their registration status.” In her letter, Biber highlighted that the Center’s materials affirmatively tell mailing recipients that ‘records show that you are eligible to vote in the 2012 presidential election.’” However, in 2009, a Virginia felon who was prosecuted for illegally registering to vote registered after receiving a registration form from the Voter Participation Center.
Biber also argued that “the center violated the law by ‘pre-populating’ the registration forms, meaning it filled in the names on applications.” Biber argued that “only voters, not a third party registering them, may fill out the application.”
Many of the registrations submitted to states by Voter Participation Center or potential voters have been found to be invalid. Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler (R) noted that “the mailings in his state have been rife with problems,” and that “only about 10 percent of those his office has received have actually been valid registrations.” According to Schedler, “It’s just ridiculous, and I think needs to be exposed for what it is.” Schedler added, “I don’t know why they (Voter Participation Center) would try to, in my opinion, disrupt the process and cause undue work on states.”
Similarly it was reported that in Colorado, “More than 17,000 Coloradans who are receiving voter registration applications from the Voter Participation Center may be signing insufficient forms.” According to Colorado’s Secretary of State’s office, “the forms failed to include a signature field and affidavit required under state law and other deficiencies.”
Accusations of Voter Suppression
Prior to its rebranding in 2011, VPC was known as Women’s Voices Women Vote (WVWV). In 2008, WVWV was identified by NPR as the source of a mass of allegedly illegal automated calls which were received on the day of the Democratic presidential primaries in North Carolina, and seemed to target African American women, suggesting that they register to vote and informing them that a packet with more information would be sent out to them in several days. The calls arrived past the deadline to register to vote in the primary leading to accusations of “voter suppression,” as critics claimed the calls were sent out to confuse voters in African American communities who had already registered to vote which would damage Barack Obama’s standing against rival Hillary Clinton, as these communities were major supporters of then-Sen. Obama. The calls were traced back to WVWV, an organization made up largely of Clinton supporters headed by Gardner, a prominent Clinton ally.  WVWV denied the allegations.
In his 2012 book The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, left-leaning journalist Sasha Issenberg identifies WVWV as pretending to engage in nonpartisan voter registration and mobilization activities that were, in fact, partisan and intended to aid Democrats win elections: “Even though the group was officially nonpartisan, for tax purposes, there was no secret that the goal of all its efforts was to generate new votes for Democrats.” 
The IRS strictly prohibits 501(c)(3) nonprofits from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” Violation of this rule “may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”
Voter registration and education activities “do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity” so long as they are “conducted in a non-partisan manner.” According to the IRS, “voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.” 
Ties to the Clinton Foundation
WVWV has many ties to the Clinton family. Gardner, in addition to being a longtime supporter of Hillary Clinton, worked on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992. Bill Clinton’s former chief-of-staff and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman, John Podesta, was a founding member of WVWV’s board, and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign manager, Maggie Williams, also formerly held a leadership position in the organization.  
WVWV’s financial integrity has been called into question on multiple occasions. In 2006, the organization paid $800,000, 16 percent of its annual budget, to Gardner’s husband Ron Rosenblith’s company, Integral Resources Inc. for phone services, raising accusations of a conflict of interest.  In addition to this, the organization paid large sums to the companies of five other of its leaders, totaling several million dollars.
Covering Up Spending on Elections
In 2012, a related group founded by Page Gardner, the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund (WVWVAF) (now the Center for Voter Information, VPC’s 501(c)(3) “sister” nonprofit), was criticized when—after telling the FEC that it spent $250,000 on ads supporting a Democratic senator—it reported to the IRS that it did not spend any money on politics. 
Ties To Democratic Party
Paige Gardner “worked on former President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.” Voter Participation Center board member John Podesta served as Bill Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign chairman. Maggie Williams, who was formerly “on the Women’s Voices (Voter Participation Center) leadership team,” was Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign manager.
Voter Participation Center has worked in conjunction with the left-wing operation MoveOn.org. Mark Bowes of the Richmond Times-Dispatch noted that “the Voter Participation Center ‘s alignment with a liberal political organization seems to conflict with the group’s oft-stated declaration of nonpartisanship.”
As an example of this coordination Bowes pointed out that in 2012, Voter Participation Center “sold a mailing list to its sister organization,” which in turn “provided the list to MoveOn.Org Civic Action,” to place “calls to eligible voters to urge them to register to vote in their local communities.” Bowes also noted that in mid-June of 2012, “around the same time the Voter Participation Center began its latest round of mailings, MoveOn.org solicited volunteers within its ranks to make calls on behalf of the center’s registration drive.”
Voter Participation Center’s chief operating officer defended the group’s intricate political operation. Voter Participation Center is “a 501(c)3 tax-exempt nonprofit organization that is barred from engaging in political activities”; however, “The Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund operates as a 501(c)4 nonprofit, which can undertake unlimited lobbying and some activity the IRS would deem political.”
Finances & Funding
Since 2011, the Voter Participation Center has received $30,986,757 in contributions and has spent $25,297,075 other expenses, with another $3,076,025 in total fundraising expenses.
Donors to Voter Participation Center
Known grants to VPC in 2018 include: 
- $3.7 million from Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund
- $2.5 million from Voter Registration Project Education Fund
- $1 million from Hopewell Fund
- $900,000 from Proteus Fund
- $403,000 from Majority Forward
- $185,000 from Schwab Charitable Fund
- $100,000 from NEO Philanthropy
- $76,000 from Silicon Valley Community Foundation
- $75,000 from Tides Foundation
- $125,000 from Human Rights Campaign Foundation
- $125,000 from Human Rights Campaign
- $50,000 from Jewish Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles
- $40k from Pennsylvania Voice
- $25,000 from Crosscurrents Foundation
- $10,000 from Jewish Communal Fund
- $19k from Wellspring Philanthropic Fund
In 2006, it was revealed that Voter Participation Center spent nearly 16% of the nonprofit’s total budget on phone services provided by Voter Participation Center’s founder Page Gardner’s husband. The president of the American Institute of Philanthropy (now known as CharityWatch) responded to the reports by saying, “I think it’s a really big concern…It does give an appearance of a conflict of interest.”
The Voter Participation Center is reportedly “funded mostly through foundations and individual donations.” Gardner manages “hotly debated national public-policy issue campaigns” such as “reproductive rights, civil rights, national budget priorities, technology, and trade.” She is also the founder and president of the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund, the Voter Participation Center’s 501(c)(4) sister organization.
Tom Lopach is the president and chief executive officer of the Voter Participation Center. He had previously worked as chief of staff to senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and Democratic Montana governor Steve Bullock.  
Board Of Directors
Voter Participation Center’s board of directors is comprised of liberal and Democratic Party activists, including
- Avis Jones-DeWeever, the President and CEO of Incite Unlimited. 
- William McNary, the president of USAction, the largest national coalition of progressive organizations, from 1999 to 2012. 
- Jill Alper, a member of the Democratic National Committee. 
- Gibby Waitzkin, a liberal activist who has worked on previous campaigns for the World Wildlife Fund’s climate campaign, Gore for President 2000, and the Pew Center on Climate Change. 
- John Podesta served as a board member until 2013.