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Innovator Debra Cleaver '99 Wants Voting To Be Easy

Debra Cleaver at home wearing a Y Combinator hoodie

Voting rights have risen to the fore across the nation in the face of a flurry of new laws and hundreds of other legislative proposals that could make it harder to vote in many states.

It’s little surprise that Debra Cleaver ’99, founder of VoteAmerica, Vote.org, ElectionDay.org and Long Distance Voter, has joined the fray.

VoteAmerica—the latest in a series of nonprofit voter registration and turnout organizations founded by Cleaver—is the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed April 7 that challenges Georgia’s SB 202, the controversial new law that orders a massive overhaul of the state’s election process.

The suit is one of five filed in protest of the Republican-backed Georgia law dubbed the Election Integrity Act of 2021. The law makes sweeping changes to absentee voting, voter ID requirements, vote-counting and other aspects of elections in Georgia in the wake of the record turnout and mail-in voting that helped swing the presidency to Joe Biden and control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats.

“Everyone's paying attention to the water in line,” Cleaver says, calling the provision in the nearly 100-page bill that makes it illegal to give away food or water to waiting voters a red herring that distracts from much more restrictive provisions.

Most specific to VoteAmerica’s programs, the law prohibits third-party groups from sending out absentee ballot applications prefilled with the voter’s information. “Even to people who have requested them from us,” says Cleaver, whose organization created a popular service that allows voters without access to a printer to fill out forms online and request that the printed form be mailed to them to return to their local election officials. The Georgia law also prohibits third parties from sending a duplicate ballot request, even inadvertently, and imposes a penalty.

“There's a $100 fine per form. We sent out 48,000 of these last year,” Cleaver says. “We have no intention of stopping. They are certainly free to fine us. And we will not pay those fines.”

Using Tech for Voter Turnout

Getting out the vote once meant voter-registration drives outside grocery stores, knocking on doors and calling voters on landlines. Cleaver, a nonprofit entrepreneur whose bona fides include being an alumna of the famous Silicon Valley startup accelerator Y Combinator, helped change all that.

“One of Debra's real strengths in this space is that she didn't come up through campaigns and that sort of professional campaign world, frankly, in the way that I did before I went back to being a professor,” says Chris Mann ’94, an assistant professor of political science at Skidmore College who became a consultant and advisor to Cleaver’s ventures after the two Pomona College alumni were introduced through professional circles. “She brings this very Silicon Valley, very entrepreneurial mindset to thinking about how to do things.”

Among innovations that are now commonplace in politics, Cleaver pioneered the use of the internet to aggregate state-by-state voter information about registration, absentee voting and voting by mail in 2008 with her first nonprofit, Long Distance Voter. More recently, she was one of the first to recognize the power of text messaging to reach potential voters.

“If you have a mobile phone today, you take for granted that as soon as campaigns get a hold of your mobile number, they're going to get your phone to buzz constantly with a stream of texts,” Mann says. “But back in 2016, this wasn't quite so clear. Campaigns used text messaging to talk to volunteers, but as an outreach to voters that they didn't already have a relationship with, it was an open question. Debra did pioneering work to demonstrate that you could reach people through their cell phone to get them to register to vote if they weren't registered and mobilize them to vote if they weren't going to vote. The conventional wisdom in politics was the text messaging was too impersonal, too technological. And Debra said we live on our phones these days; this technology is very personal. It's not impersonal in the way a robocall or an email is.

“The other and bigger innovation is building user-friendly tools to simplify the process of registering, of requesting a mail ballot. Those two processes were not online when she started, in a lot of states. And she not only made it easy for voters, but she helped show states that you can build user-friendly tools.”

A Campus Activist

A psychology major who minored in anthropology at Pomona, Cleaver didn’t study politics but became an activist in LGBTQ issues. “I was driving some dean crazy about something QRC related while I was on campus,” she told politics majors in a Zoom session organized by the department's student liaisons before the November election. “At this point, gay marriage was illegal. The Defense of Marriage Act was about to pass. I think I first became politicized around things like that.”

Another catalyst was the 2000 election, the disputed presidential contest that was decided for George W. Bush by a U.S. Supreme Court decision after the razor-close margin in Florida brought issues of vote-counting and election processes to the fore.

Cleaver’s politics are decidedly liberal, but the organizations she has founded are not.

“I can give you a very clear answer: The IRS recognizes us as nonpartisan,” she says of VoteAmerica, where she is CEO. “Everyone who works at a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization is in fact a partisan human. But our mission is explicitly nonpartisan. Our mission is to increase voter turnout, and we will happily work with any group regardless of their political persuasion if they’re aligned with us.

“The 2020 election actually stood out to me because it was the first time—I've been running groups like this since 2008—that I didn't have a single conservative partner. There were no conservative groups trying to increase turnout. … When we say we increased voter turnout, people hear that we are Democrats. That is dispiriting.”

Among the next projects on Cleaver’s list is trying to encourage people to vote when filing their taxes, potentially through partnerships with online tax-preparation companies. She also is focused on young voters.

“We're launching something called Future Voter, which targets people in high school, gets them to sign up. They give us their name and their cell phone number. And then they get a programmatic message on their 18th birthday when it's time to register to vote, because there's research that shows that the best predictor of how consistently you vote is how old you are the first time you vote. But no one has launched what is essentially the Head Start of voting.”

Cleaver is well known in the world of campaign politics, yet when approached to work for the Biden campaign during the 2020 election cycle, she stayed put.

“I once jokingly said I should be the DNC chair,” Cleaver says. “I should be the DNC chair, but that would not happen because I'm not particularly diplomatic. I think honestly, I'm pretty much a lifer in this work and it's because of the work that we do. This about being entrepreneurial. It's disruptive. We look at what's going on around us, and we say, ‘This can be done better.’”