Who’s bankrolling secretive liberal group America Votes?
Even as top Democrats denounce Charles and David Koch's political "dark money" organizations, party operatives have built a secretive nonprofit network of their own — albeit a much smaller one — to advance liberal policies and win votes.
America Votes, which seeks to build "a permanent advocacy and campaign infrastructure" to "promote progressive issues," raised $12.7 million during its most recent fiscal year, according to new tax documents reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity.
The sources of America Votes' funding are not clear.
"We do not disclose that information to the public," said America Votes spokeswoman Liz Accola, adding that her group was "in full compliance" with the law.
The new tax records show that a dozen anonymous donors provided the lion's share of the budget for America Votes during its most recent fiscal year, with each giving between $300,000 and $1.1 million. Together, these 12 donors accounted for 60 percent of the group's funds.
Americans for Prosperity, one of the many conservative nonprofits supported by the billionaire Koch brothers, spent $122 million in 2012, as the Center for Public Integrity previously reported.
This year, America Votes aims to raise more than $8.5 million, according to documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. Between 40 percent and 50 percent of that sum is projected to come from wealthy donors connected to the Democracy Alliance, a secretive nonprofit whose funders include the likes of billionaire investor George Soros* and author, horticulturalist and philanthropist Amy Goldman.
As a 501(c)(4) "social welfare" nonprofit, America Votes is not required to publicly disclose its donors. Accola called this designation an "appropriate" tax status for America Votes, given its focus on issue advocacy.
She added that the group also maintains a sister super PAC, the America Votes Action Fund, which "conducts exclusively electoral activity" and "discloses its donors as required by law."
On its website, America Votes does list about three dozen organizations — including the EMILY's List, the Sierra Club and many labor unions — as "national partners," although it doesn't say how much money they've provided. Several state-specific partners are also named.
Tax filings with the Internal Revenue Service and documents submitted to the Department of Labor do provide some insight into the social welfare nonprofit's funding.
The National Education Association, for instance, reported giving America Votes more than $1 million between October 2012 and September 2013, according to a filing with the Department of Labor.
Other labor unions supporting America Votes include the Service Employees International Union ($443,000), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ($333,000) and the United Food and Commercial Workers ($28,000), documents covering each group's last fiscal year indicate.
Other social welfare nonprofits, such as Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the League of Conservation Voters and the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, have also financially supported America Votes in the past, according research by the Center for Responsive Politics and a Center for Public Integrity review of tax filings maintained by CitizenAudit.org. So, too, have foundations such as the Advocacy Fund and the Tides Foundation.
During its most recent fiscal year, which began on July 1, 2012, and ended on June 30, 2013, America Votes doled out more than $5 million to other advocacy organizations and politically active groups, including $420,000 to Vote Vets Action Fund, $360,000 to Fair Share Alliance and $240,000 to Patriot Majority USA.
During the 2012 election, Vote Vets Action Fund, Fair Share Alliance and Patriot Majority USA — all social welfare nonprofits — produced advertisements that supported Democratic candidates or criticized Republicans, and this election cycle, Patriot Majority USA has emerged as a major player in the U.S. Senate races in Arkansas, North Carolina and Kentucky.
America Votes was created ahead of the 2004 election by a group of liberal political operatives, including EMILY's List founder Ellen Malcolm, former Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope and Harold Ickes, a longtime adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
The organization facilitates liberals coordinating and avoiding duplicative efforts when contacting voters.
"Every contact with a voter that's duplicated needlessly is a wasted dollar," said America Votes Executive Director Greg Speed in a promotional video posted to YouTube last year. (In November, Speed became the group's president.)
"When EMILY's List spends one dollar in New Hampshire, it means that AFSCME can spend their dollar somewhere else," added EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock in a related promotional video.
America Votes also helps spread financial resources around the country, giving to groups that Accola, the spokeswoman, said focused on "engaging voters on vital progressive issues."
She continued: "It is crucial that we are here to maximize the impact of every dollar — especially in the face of unprecedented spending by the Koch brothers and conservative groups."
America Votes itself spend about $47,000 on phone calls urging voters to support Obama and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., ahead of the November 2012 election.
When the Federal Election Commission asked for additional information about the donors who helped bankroll these expenditures, America Votes issued a response saying that it "does not accept contributions earmarked for a specific political purpose" — the only contributions the FEC has ruled that 501(c)(4) nonprofits must disclose.
* George Soros is the chairman of the Open Society Foundations, which provides funding for the Center for Public Integrity.
Reprinted by permission of The Center for Public Integrity.