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Gerry Cohen had already voted, dropping off his state-issued ballot at his local post office, by the time the unsolicited mail ballot applications started showing up at his house in early September. The first one or two didn’t bother him. Cohen knows elections: He teaches election law at Duke University and is a Democratic member of the Board of Elections in Wake County, North Carolina. Sending applications directly to voters is “a good public service,” he said.
But Cohen has received at least seven unsolicited mail ballot applications since he voted — not from the state or county, but from the same get-out-the-vote group. “It’s extremely disruptive and reaches the level of a disinformation campaign,” Cohen said. “I think seven is malicious.”
The applications were from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Voter Information, which, along with its sister organization, the Voter Participation Center, is conducting a massive campaign to register voters and promote mail-in voting. The nonprofits aim to send 340 million pieces of mail this election cycle, with a focus on two dozen key states. The groups describe themselves as nonpartisan, but they were founded by a former Democratic operative, and the organization has spent at least $47,142 this cycle to promote former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential bid and $40,065 supporting other Democrats, according to public filings.
Election officials say CVI has made a host of mistakes that have buried their offices in unnecessary paperwork and swamped them with calls from voters. Mailers from groups like CVI, which can be mistaken for official documents sent by state or local governments, are confusing voters at a time when states are racing to expand voting by mail during a pandemic, according to election officials from both parties. President Donald Trump has stoked fears of voter fraud by citing CVI’s activities.
As states ramp up mail-in voting, CVI and other direct-mail groups across the country are causing friction by tackling responsibilities that traditionally belong to the government: the sending of ballot applications and other election-related materials. Alabama’s secretary of state warned residents in early October against using unofficial voter registration forms from a group called Election Mail Service, a project of a Texas public benefit corporation called Civitech. Ohio and North Carolina officials have also put out public statements about unsolicited registration forms from Civitech, some of which were prefilled with incorrect names, addresses, and other personal information.
Civitech CEO Jeremy Smith said the group made efforts to contact all affected voters, and it attributed the erroneous mailers in North Carolina, which make up 0.2% of all its mailers this cycle, to a vendor error. He also said the firm attempted to coordinate with Alabama officials before sending forms across the state. Civitech is a nonpartisan organization, but in a September interview published on Medium, Smith said it does make some tools for only Democratic or unaffiliated candidates.
Election officials say that, while CVI’s mission may be admirable, it causes too much collateral damage. “It’s not about the good that one organization does,” said Jared Dearing, director of Kentucky’s State Board of Elections and a Democrat. “It’s about the net value for the whole system. If you register one person but create so much anxiety and consternation, how many voters get so turned off they don’t interact with the system at all?”
CVI argues that the vast majority of its mailers are accurate, and while a small percentage of people receive one with a mistake, they otherwise reach voters who would be overlooked. But for years, CVI has been criticized for the inaccuracy of its mailers and has faced reports that it has sent voter registration forms to the deceased, to longtime voters who are already registered, and even to pets with human-sounding names. Several state and local election officials said that they have asked CVI to use more up-to-date voter lists and make it clearer that its letters do not come from the government. CVI said its mailers include disclaimers that it is not a government organization.
Tom Lopach, the CEO of CVI and its sister organization, defended his organization’s role and said it is filling a hole left by local election operations. “The sad reality is that underfunded state and county election offices don’t have the resources to run voter registration programs,” Lopach said. “Beyond pointing unregistered voters to their websites, or trying to do outdoor registration drives in a pandemic, election officials are unprepared and incapable of finding and registering eligible Americans who are not participating in democracy.”
This year, election offices have received almost 5.6 million vote-by-mail applications from CVI, and they’ve received an additional 1.5 million of the group’s voter registration applications this cycle, the nonprofit said. Those figures, Lopach said, are based on barcode tracking on return envelopes, which shows when an application is received by a local election office. CVI later checks how many of those people are registered. Those numbers may include duplicate applications submitted by the same individual, Lopach said.
For vote-by-mail applications, CVI said it uses official voter rolls to find known registered voters. For voter registration, it focuses on people who aren’t always included in official records — including unmarried women, people of color, and young people, who may relocate more often without updating their addresses. Its analysts search for these harder-to-reach voters in commercial databases — like magazine subscription lists — then compare them to official voter rolls, death records, and other databases. CVI then uses that data to send unsolicited mailers to addresses of potential unregistered voters.
In a normal year, less than 1% of CVI’s mailers have inaccurate voter information, an incorrect application, or the wrong return envelope, Lopach said. He added that some errors are inevitable and that the group also encounters mistakes in official voter files.
He acknowledged that CVI can create more work for local election officials but said that it’s part of their job to respond to voter concerns. Lopach also cited a variety of factors confusing voters this year, but he believes the Center for Voter Information is not one of them.
Still, the group’s mistakes have made it a lightning rod, with Democrats and Republicans alike taking to social media to wonder aloud whether a letter from CVI is part of a voter suppression effort by the opposite party.
In North Carolina, Cohen and his fellow election officials in Wake County were already preparing for a massive increase in absentee voting this year. Then CVI started mailing 1.8 million ballot request forms across the state in August.
Individual voters have submitted as many as four requests for the November 2020 election, according to Wake County, and each application has to be processed individually. “Voters get them, people who aren’t really knowledgeable, and they fill it out,” Cohen said. “A week later, they haven’t gotten their ballot yet, [so] they send in another form.”
This wasn’t the only recent CVI controversy in North Carolina. In June, the group sent 80,000 absentee ballot application forms to voters with their names and addresses filled out. That prompted a public statement from the State Board of Elections that prefilled forms had been banned by the state legislature in 2019 and that those applications could not be processed.
CVI re-sent 80,000 blank applications to the same recipients, Lopach said, and the group “believed that it was complying with the new law, and had received written assurances from the state regarding its mailing,” though he declined to share copies of those assurances.
Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the state’s Board of Elections, said the agency typically tries to review third-party mailings. “If we miss something in our review, that doesn’t relieve that group or any other of the obligation to comply with North Carolina law,” Gannon said.
This year, officials in other states have escalated their frustrations with the nonprofit. In September, Kentucky’s Republican secretary of state, Michael Adams, released a statement calling the CVI mailers a “scam.” Lopach responded by telling Kentucky media outlets that the secretary of state’s comments was “a shameful attempt to disenfranchise Kentucky voters by discouraging them from registering to vote.”
Dearing, the top election administrator in Kentucky, said it’s unfair for Lopach to claim officials aren’t doing enough.
In an Aug. 25 email to an attorney for CVI, Dearing pleaded with the group: “PLEASE DO NOT send paper applications to voters in Kentucky. In doing so you would create large amounts of voter confusion and generate a large volume of duplicate applications that would have the potential of doing very real harm to this system.”
Instead of paper applications, Dearing suggested directing residents to the state’s online portal, where they can both register to vote and request mail-in ballots. The same services are also available over the phone. Dearing’s office also sent 500,000 postcards to unregistered voters earlier this year directing them to the online portal.
Nevertheless, CVI began mailing letters and application forms to Kentuckians in September. Dearing’s office was jammed with calls, including many from longtime voters who worried they had somehow been removed from the rolls.
“If you pull some crap and unregister me to vote, I will hunt you down,” one caller threatened in a voicemail to the Kentucky Board of Elections in September. “I will destroy you in a court of law and bury you under so many lawsuits you will never see the light of day!”
In August, CVI sent 500,000 vote-by-mail applications to Virginia residents with the wrong return address. Days later, Trump seized on the issue and told reporters that “half a million incorrect absentee ballot applications were sent all across the state of Virginia, including to many dead people” before he launched into an attack on mail-in voting.
A CVI vendor took responsibility, saying it accidentally mixed up eight Virginia jurisdictions. More than 35 mail crates of completed applications that should have gone to Fairfax County, for example, ended up at Fairfax City Hall. Brenda Cabrera, director of elections for Fairfax City, said her staff spent most of four days responding to calls from confused voters about CVI’s mailers. She said callers mentioned “a lot of the buzzwords — voter suppression, voter fraud.”
“It just fed into every story on both sides of the aisle, of what people are afraid of,” Cabrera said, “and it fed that fear in a really detrimental, unproductive and administratively difficult way.”
Though the mistake generated a lot of fear and concern, CVI said the mailers were ultimately a success. Lopach said that CVI “immediately owned up to the problem” and paid for a staffer to assist Fairfax County for two weeks. CVI also issued prepaid shipping labels to send ballot applications to the right office. In the end, benefiting from a state law that required election officials to forward and process every form, the group says it helped more than 280,000 Virginians sign up to vote by mail using CVI forms. Virginia’s Department of Elections said it could not immediately confirm CVI’s claim, as its ability to track registrations by third-party groups is limited.
This year, CVI is sending multiple vote-by-mail applications to millions of registered voters, a practice that Lopach defended as a “prompt” to encourage voting by mail. “We frequently check state databases and do our best to remove the names of any people who already have signed up to vote by mail,” he said.
Duplicate applications have put a serious strain on Pennsylvania’s election system, where CVI and other groups have sent tens of thousands of mailers. Officials in the state have rejected 372,000 applications for mail-in ballots, more than 90% of which were duplicate requests, ProPublica reported last week.
Election officials are often suspicious of third-party voting participation groups and disagree about the best way to reach voters, according to Charles Stewart III, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who specializes in elections. “All of them stand in an uneasy relationship with election officials, even under the best of circumstances,” Stewart said. “There could be fruitful collaboration if these groups had the attitude that elections officials were potential partners instead of adversaries.”
Still, election officials who spoke with ProPublica said CVI creates problems for their offices in election cycle after election cycle. Though CVI said it shares its mailers with state officials to get their feedback before sending them out, several officials said that CVI keeps making what they see as preventable mistakes. “I have spoken with them and asked them to double-check, triple-check their data,” said Chris Piper, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections. “And we continue to have problems.”
Such as the political mail that is occasionally — and mistakenly — addressed to pets. It’s not uncommon for people to use their dog’s or cat’s name to sign up for a mailing list; CVI says it screens its lists for common pet names.
“The reality is the state would never actually accept a registration form from a cat,” said Jordan Fuchs, Georgia’s deputy secretary of state. “Because that cat doesn’t have a valid ID. What it does is undermine faith in elections and election security here in the U.S. And if we’re going to restore faith, we need to have third-party groups clean their data and make sure that what they’re putting out there is accurate.”
In April, election officials from a little over half of Florida’s counties signed a letter asking their secretary of state and attorney general to either take legal action against CVI or speak out publicly against its mailers, which the letter referred to as “a deceptive enterprise” that will “carpet bomb Floridians with more voter registration deception this month.”
The letter also seized on the group’s lack of transparency about its finances and backers, calling CVI and VPC a “shadow group.” The Florida secretary of state’s office forwarded the letter to the state attorney general “for review and/or action as they deem necessary,” spokesman Mark Ard said in a statement. Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement said it could not find any evidence that it had received a referral from the state’s attorney general.
Both Lopach and CVI’s founder, Page Gardner, have deep ties to Democratic politics: Gardner worked on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, and Clinton’s former chief of staff, John Podesta, has served on the organization’s board. CVI’s clients include progressive groups like NextGen America, the youth voting organization founded by billionaire and former Democratic presidential nominee Tom Steyer.
The nonprofits have also hired direct-mail and fundraising firms, like the Bonner Group, that typically work with left-leaning clients. This year, Mind the Gap, a secretive Silicon Valley donor group supporting progressive candidates, is also sending donors their way, according to Vox.
“Based on the best science available, we strongly believe in the work VPC and CVI are undertaking and wholeheartedly support their mission,” said one of Mind the Gap’s leaders, Stanford law professor Barbara Fried.
Lopach would not answer questions about the funders behind the group’s multimillion-dollar campaigns. He is adamant that party ties don’t play into how the group conducts its voter outreach, but he declined to answer whether CVI works with any Republican or right-leaning groups.
“VPC and CVI don’t work with outside vendors or partner organizations based on party affiliation,” Lopach said in a statement. “We are a nonpartisan civic-engagement group, period.”
But the group has spent some of its budget on political endeavors. The Center for Voter Information is a 501(c)(4), which allows the nonprofit to engage in some advocacy. Since 2005, it’s reported at least $780,360 in political spending to the Federal Election Commission, either to oppose Republicans or support Democratic candidates, including the spending this cycle for Biden. Lopach said the money went toward letters that provide “comparative factual information on candidates’ positions.”
Last year, a Facebook page associated with CVI also paid for ads with the slogan “Stop Trump: Register to Vote.” Lopach said the ad buy was a “small voter registration test” that cost less than $4,000.
“The test did not prove successful and that messaging, which was only part of the test, has not been used again,” Lopach said.
Direct mail is still where CVI spends the most heavily, and where it’s found most of its success mobilizing voters. Experts are mixed on whether mail really is an effective way to get out the vote. Three studies have shown that letters from CVI’s sister organization bumped turnout by up to 1.1 percentage points among mailer recipients in some races.
But Donald Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University, hasfoundthat a face-to-face conversation with a canvasser or volunteer is usually much more effective than direct mail. After a voter receives five pieces of mail from the same group, Green said, the positive effects start to wear off.
CVI’s new emphasis on getting people signed up to vote by mail is also somewhat untested. The group has hired at least two independent experts to help evaluate its 2020 campaign once the election is over, and Lopach said he’s planning a “stem to stern” review of CVI’s programs beyond that.
Patty Rosnel, 69, of Union Mills, North Carolina, donated $50 to CVI in August after receiving a mail-in ballot application from the group. Although she had already requested a ballot from the county, she thought the nonprofit’s direct voter outreach was a good idea.
Then two more mailers arrived, prompting her to use CVI’s website to unsubscribe from the mailing list. Rosnel, who describes herself as a “forced” Democrat, also looked up CVI online, and she was dismayed by media accounts of its inaccurate mailers and the lack of information about its donors.
For Rosnel, the last mailer she received, a letter comparing two candidates in a North Carolina Senate race, was the final straw. She felt the letter was more confusing than helpful. She emailed the group this week to ask for her money back.
“I felt I was misled, and to some extent it was my fault,” Rosnel said. “I feel like they’re gumming up the system more than helping people vote.”