Originally founded in 1989 by California Secretary of State March Fong Eu, the California Voter Foundation (CVF) was re-founded in 1994 by Kim Alexander, to advance the responsible use of technology to improve the democratic process. CVF is a non-partisan, non-profit 501(c)(3) supported by tax-deductible contributions from foundations and individuals.
The California Voter Foundation has worked to improve democracy through the responsible use of new technologies since its founding in 1994, providing Californians with nonpartisan election and government information on the Web, and raising awareness of emerging democracy and technology issues in California and beyond.
The scope of CVF's work has expanded over the years to include advancing transparency of money in politics through online campaign finance disclosure; developing innovative voter education resources; promoting verification of voting technology through a voter-verified paper audit trail requirement for electronic voting systems and mandatory public audits of vote-counting software; and protecting the physical safety and security of election officials and their staff responsible for conducting elections. CVF's mission has evolved to focus on improving the voting process to better serve voters, and the organization's programs reflect this evolution by focusing on the need to more robustly and equitably provide election administration funding and services to voters across all 58 California counties, and improving the vote-by-mail process by reducing voter disenfranchisement due to ballot rejection.
CVF is governed by a dedicated board of directors and guided by its mission and program goals. Below is a summary of CVF's achievements since its re-founding in 1994.
Innovating the Internet as a tool for reliable, nonpartisan information
When CVF began in 1994, the World Wide Web did not yet exist. That fall, CVF teamed up with Pacific Bell's Knowledge Network and published its first "California Online Voter Guide" - one of the first six election-related sites that existed on the Internet that year. CVF has continued to publish its online guide for every statewide election since then. In addition, CVF has worked collaboratively with other nonprofits as well as state and local election officials to expand online access to reliable, nonpartisan voting information.
One particular resource CVF has promoted is the availability of online lookup tools that help voters determine if they are registered to vote, if their registration address is current, if their vote-by-mail ballot was received and counted, and where to find their polling places. CVF has tracked the availability of such lookup tools at the county level and links to these tools where they exist via CVF's Directory of County Election Offices. CVF also urged and provided input on the State of California's My Voter Status lookup tool which launched in September 2016 and provides all Californians with timely, personalized information about their voting and ballot status.
Advancing electronic filing and online disclosure of campaign finance data to create "digital sunlight" and help voters follow the money
CVF is a pioneer in the online disclosure movement. With help from computer scientists at Digital Equipment Corporation, CVF built the world's first real-time, online campaign finance disclosure database for the 1995 San Francisco Mayoral Election. San Francisco was the first jurisdiction to require candidates to file their campaign finance reports in a digital format and CVF saw the 1995 election as a "proof of concept" opportunity to showcase how campaign data filed electronically could be easily accessed and searched online. Two years later, with leadership provided by CVF, the California Legislature enacted the Online Disclosure Act of 1997, mandating that state campaigns file their data in digital formats that the Secretary of State would then post online. California campaign data first started being made freely available to the public online in 1998 via a searchable database CVF created in collaboration with Compaq Labs. In 2000, the California Secretary of State began publishing campaign finance data online; the state's site was enhanced in 2003 to provide search capabilities, at CVF's urging.
CVF pushed successfully for more states to join in the "digital sunlight" revolution by conducting numerous state-by-state assessments of existing campaign disclosure laws and practices. The initial report, called "The Digital Sunlight Awards", was issued in 1999, and was followed by five more rounds of assessment conducted through the Campaign Disclosure Project, a partnership of CVF, the Center for Governmental Studies, and the UCLA School of Law with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts. The assessment, grades, and rankings helped state leaders better understand how their performance compared to others and where they needed to improve. It also provided an incentive for states to improve. Over the course of five nationwide assessments over six years from 2002-2008, the "Grading State Disclosure" assessment saw 36 states improve their scores and disclosure performance.
In 2011, CVF began a successful program to enhance California voters' ability to learn who the top donors to initiative campaigns were, recognizing that such data provides a powerful shortcut to help voters make more informed choices. In 2013 and 2014, CVF supported successful legislation that directs the Fair Political Practices Commission to identify the top donors for and against each measure, and requires the Secretary of State to feature top donors in its online guide and reference this resource in the state's printed Voter Information Guide.
Experimenting with civic journalism in the "Your Voices Count" project
In 1995, CVF joined a partnership with the San Jose Mercury News and KNTV Television of San Jose. Called "Your Voices Count", the project helped community members engage in campaign finance reform issues in the California State Capitol. Supported by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, "Your Voices Count" was one of the nation's first "civic journalism" projects, helping to pave the way to a new, nonprofit journalism business model.
Advancing the responsible use of technology in the voting process through opposition to online voting
CVF board and staff participated in the world's first task force to examine the feasibility of Internet voting. Convened by then-Secretary of State Bill Jones in 1999, the Internet Voting Task Force explored whether it was safe for voters to cast ballots online and concluded that the Internet is not secure enough for transacting ballots, thus putting the brakes on Internet voting in California and nationwide as well.
Educating California voters about ballot measures through the Proposition Song
In March 2000, voters were confronted with a ballot featuring 20 statewide propositions. CVF produced its first Proposition Song and music video for that election, and has since produced several additional songs and videos, for the 2006, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 general elections.
Advocating for voter-verified paper ballots and meaningful post-election audits
CVF first began to advocate for paper-based voting systems in 2001, after the 2000 Presidential election and the passage of the Help America Vote Act and California's Voting Modernization Bond Act, both of which prompted California counties to make huge investments in new voting equipment. Beginning in late 2002, CVF began organizing an effort to oppose paperless electronic voting and require voting machines to produce a voter-verified paper audit trail to be used to audit the accuracy of the vote count after the election. CVF board and staff served on then-Secretary of State Kevin Shelley's Ad Hoc Touch Screen Task Force. That fall, the Secretary of State changed California's voting system certification requirements to mandate that electronic voting systems produce a voter-verified paper audit trail. Shortly thereafter, California lawmakers codified this requirement into statute and California became one of the first states in the nation to ban paperless electronic voting.
In 2006, 40,000 paperless electronic voting machines in California were either replaced with paper-based voting systems or retrofitted with printers that produced voter-verified paper audit trails.
Examining and highlighting challenges to voter privacy
Beginning in 2002, CVF began a nationwide study of voter registration data and its impact on voter privacy. In 2004, CVF published the first-ever comprehensive review of state voter registration data collection and dissemination practices. This landmark report, Voter Privacy in the Digital Age, was produced in partnership with UC Berkeley's School of Law and the Goldman School of Policy. Since its publication, several other organizations have since examined the risks voters face when providing their personal information in order to register to vote and how to better protect voter data.
Examining barriers and incentives to California voter participation
In 2005, CVF released a major report on barriers and incentives to California voter participation. Funded with a grant from the James Irvine Foundation, this study was unique in that it surveyed 2,000 infrequent voters and eligible but non-registered Californians - two groups often overlooked by political campaigns. The findings showed that friends and family have a strong impact on whether people vote or not, and that lack of time is viewed as a significant barrier to voting by many would-be voters.
Improving California's post-election audits and strengthening voting system security
CVF board and staff served on the California Secretary of State Debra Bowen's Post-Election Audit Standards Working Group, which recommended that California's post-election audit requirements be strengthened to provide greater confidence in the accuracy of election results, particularly in close contests. That same year, then-Secretary Bowen adopted new requirements as a condition for certification of voting systems, following a massive decertification of most uses of electronic voting in California.
In 2017, CVF opposed Assembly Bill 840, which was enacted into law and reduced the number of ballots counties must include in the post-election manual tally. In 2018, CVF worked to amend Assembly Bill 2125, which as initially written would have allowed ballot images rather than actual ballots to be used in the post-election audit process.
Modernizing voter registration and Improving voter access to online tools that facilitate voting
While CVF is a strong opponent of online voting, the organization has a long history of promoting the Internet as a tool to facilitate voter engagement. CVF supported the implementation of online voter registration in California, which began in 2012. CVF staff worked with the Pew Center on the States to produce a nationwide study on state election websites and lookup tools, called Being Online is Still Not Enough, the data from which was later incorporated into the Election Performance Index.
CVF also tracked the ten-year effort to implement VoteCal, the statewide voter registration database California was required, along with all other states, to develop after the federal Help America Vote Act was enacted. The development of this database began in 2006 and was concluded in 2016. CVF published an in-depth policy brief, VoteCal and the Struggle to Modernize California's Statewide Voter Registration Database in 2015, documenting the project's setbacks and milestones. Once VoteCal was finally certified in September 2016, several other election reforms that were on hold awaiting its certification were then implemented, including pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds, conditional "same day" voter registration, and expanded Motor Voter implementation.
Advocating for increased funding for election administration
CVF has long recognized that money is a frequent barrier to the services and conveniences that benefit voters. CVF has advocated since 2013 for the restoration of funding in the California State Budget to reimburse counties for costs associated with implementing state-mandated election programs such as giving voters the ability to vote by mail. In 2016-17, in collaboration with the Future of California Elections, CVF convened an Election Funding Working Group made up of voting advocates, county and state election officials, and staff from the Governor's Department of Finance to develop an Election Funding and Governance proposal to provide a framework that ensures California voters are treated to the same level of services and conveniences regardless of the county in which they live. CVF supported the increased funding in the 2017-18 state budget to provide $134 million to counties to upgrade voting equipment. In 2017-18, CVF advocated for Assembly Bill 216 which was enacted into law and requires counties to provide postage-paid vote-by-mail ballot return envelopes to voters statewide, marking the first time the state has adopted a new state-mandated election program with a multi-million dollar budget pricetag.
CVF continues to support the need and seek opportunities for state- and federal-level funding for election administration. In 2021, CVF joined with other California voter advocacy organizations to urge lawmakers to include $85 million in the state budget to fund state and local election offices’ voter education and outreach efforts. Since 2022, CVF has been involved in a nationwide, collaborative effort with election officials, other nonprofits, counties, cities, and states who are working together to try to get election infrastructure in the U.S. more adequately funded.
Improving the performance of California's vote-by-mail balloting process by reducing disenfranchisement and ballot rejection
Voting by mail is popular in California but not without its challenges. CVF began examining California's vote-by-mail process in 2013. Through its collaboration with the Future of California Elections, CVF teamed up with three county election offices - Orange, Santa Cruz, and Sacramento - to closely examine each county's vote-by-mail process, ballot rejection rates and reasons for rejection. The study resulted in the report, "Improving California's Vote-by-Mail Process: A Three-County Study", which highlighted the need for a number of improvements to address ballot rejection rates. Many of these reforms have been implemented, including the enactment of SB 759 in 2018, which requires all counties to conduct outreach to voters whose ballot envelope signatures are found to insufficiently match their signature on file, and provide an opportunity to submit a valid signature.
Supporting, defending, and protecting election officials
In 2021, CVF released its landmark report “Documenting and Addressing Harassment of Election Officials” which exposed the number of threats and harassment election officials and their staff in California and across the country have been facing since the 2020 presidential election, resulting from unfounded claims of election fraud widely circulated on social media and by some politicians and news organizations. According to the Department of Justice’s Election Threats Task Force, there have been over 1,000 threats received by election workers and reported to the FBI nationwide in 2022, with at least 100 rising to the level of a prosecutable threat of unlawful violence.
In response to this crisis, in 2021 CVF formed a nationwide network of leaders across several sectors that meet monthly to defend and build a community of support for election officials and election administration.
In 2022, CVF co-sponsored legislation (SB 1131) with the Brennan Center for Justice to strengthen California laws to protect election workers’ security and safety by allowing them to enroll in address confidentiality programs. The bill was signed into law by Governor Newsom on September 26, 2022, and included an urgency clause, so the protections went into effect immediately and before the November 2022 election.
In September 2022, CVF hosted an online briefing called “Peace at the Polls CA” to help local and state election officials, law enforcement officers, and nonprofit election observers prepare for potential conflict in and around voting sites and election offices before, during, and after California’s November 8th, 2022 election. The event provided de-escalation tips to help prepare to effectively handle potential confrontations and aggressive poll monitoring. This event was also designed to strengthen relationships between local leaders and promote communication to help ensure prompt and thoughtful action if necessary to keep the election and vote-counting process peaceful. Over 100 local elections office staff and law enforcement officers from 31 counties attended this briefing. A list of the resources shared with attendees is available on CVF's Peace at the Polls CA Resources web page, as well as a video recording of the event.
- 2008: National Association of Secretaries of State Award
- Given to CVF President Kim Alexander, "for being a true believer in democracy and working tirelessly to make the system work better," by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen
- Given to CVF President Kim Alexander, "for being a true believer in democracy and working tirelessly to make the system work better," by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen
- 2004: Pioneer Award
- Given to CVF President Kim Alexander, along with Professors David Dill and Avi Rubin, for "their pioneering work spearheading and nurturing a popular movement for integrity and transparency in modern elections," by the Electronic Frontier Foundation
- 1999: Webby Award
- For the CVF web site, in the Politics and Law category, given by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences
- 1996: James Madison Freedom of Information Award
- For promoting electronic access to public information, given by the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter