On Oct. 23, ProPublica published an article that took a close look at the 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.
Voters across several states told ProPublica that CVI’s mailings, which can be confused for documents sent by state or local governments, left them baffled or concerned. During a tense and unprecedented year for America’s voting systems, election officials in both parties say the mailings have created extra work for their offices and have led to a flood of calls from confused voters. For years, state and local officials have complained that CVI’s mailers contain inaccurate information and preventable errors. In one case this year, CVI sent North Carolina voters ballot applications with voters’ names and addresses already filled out, despite the fact that prefilled applications were banned by the state’s legislature in 2019.
Because CVI has widely circulated its post-publication letters to us, we would like to respond here to some of the specific critiques expressed by its CEO, Tom Lopach, and lay key parts of this exchange before readers.
In an Oct. 25 email, Lopach said that our story “overstates the significance of a relatively small number of errors common to any organization sending tens of millions of pieces of mail each year…”
In fact, our story directly cited CVI’s error rate, and we believe we put CVI’s work and the related academic studies in fair context. There have been long-standing concerns about errors in CVI’s mailings; we are not the first news outlet to cover these mistakes.
During a time of great anxiety among the electorate, our reporting shows that CVI’s mailers have confused some voters, left election offices saddled with extra work and created havoc for some election officials. These facts are not in dispute.
In an Oct. 27 email, Lopach took issue with our reporting about CVI’s dealings with Kentucky officials:
“...your reporters never once mentioned to me that they had spoken to Jared Dearing, the director of elections for Kentucky’s Board of Elections. They never asked a single question about our efforts in Kentucky regarding our vote-by-mail program. Had they done so—which would have been the fair approach—we would have gladly provided evidence of our phone call with Mr. Dearing and would have provided ProPublica proof that we had conceded to his request. We made the decision not to mail any vote-by-mail applications into Kentucky after Mr. Dearing warned that their system could not handle the amount of vote-by-mail applications we would generate.”
In an email dated Oct. 13, our reporters asked Lopach about CVI’s operations in Kentucky and Florida. The question was: “A number of local officials (Kentucky, Florida) have said they’re trying to explore some kind of legal action against CVI. What do you make of those comments, and do you think they will eventually force your organization to make changes? Do you think those threats have a legal basis?”
In response to this question, Lopach sent us an 826-word statement that included a previous press release in which he accused Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams and Attorney General Daniel Cameron of “a shameful attempt to disenfranchise” voters. Part of Lopach’s response was directly quoted in our story.
Lopach contends that CVI informed Kentucky officials about its decision not to send out mail-in ballot applications to Kentucky voters. But Dearing told us that while CVI listened to his complaints about mail-in ballot applications, it still decided to send out voter registration forms to voters in the state.
Dearing told ProPublica he was adamantly against CVI’s approach to both voter registration forms and mail-in ballot applications, a sentiment shared by some election officials in other states and one that Dearing said he has communicated to CVI many times over the years. As we reported, after CVI’s mailings this year, “Dearing’s office was jammed with calls, including many from longtime voters who worried they had somehow been removed from the rolls.”
Lopach said that CVI sends mailers to election officials before they are distributed widely, but this is not the same as obtaining their consent, cooperation or understanding.
In an email to ProPublica, Lopach suggested that Dearing’s concerns about mail-in ballot applications may have been “an effort to suppress votes.”
We have clarified the piece to indicate that CVI ultimately decided not to send out mail ballot applications to voters in Kentucky but continued to send out voter registration forms.
**In an email to ProPublica on Oct. 28, Lopach mentioned that its records indicate that Gerry Cohen, a Democratic member of a North Carolina county election board whose complaints about CVI were referred to at the beginning of the story, only received one mailer from CVI and that his wife received five mailings.
**Cohen, who teaches elections law at Duke University, told us he and his wife received at least seven mail-in ballot applications from CVI. Lopach, meanwhile, maintains that CVI’s records show Cohen was sent only one mailing and his wife was sent five, for a total of six mailings. We have updated our piece to reflect this information.
CVI bills itself a nonpartisan organization, but some of its activity, particularly recent mailers, calls that into question.
CVI is a 501(c)(4), which allows the nonprofit to engage in some political advocacy. ProPublica has reported in the past on the flood of political money flowing into some of these groups. Legally, they’re allowed to make political expenditures while keeping their donors’ names private as long as politics isn’t the organization’s “primary activity.”
CVI describes itself as a nonpartisan organization.
From 2005 until this month, CVI reported more than $780,000 in political spending to the Federal Election Commission, either to oppose Republicans or support Democratic candidates.**
On Oct. 25, two days after our article was published, CVI reported an additional $495,340 in mailers and services to support former Vice President Joe Biden.
Moreover, recent candidate comparison mailers from CVI seem to raise more questions about the organization’s nonpartisanship. This mailer bearing CVI’s name compares President Donald Trump and Biden in a manner that makes clear which candidate voters should pick.
When asked this week about the mailers, Lopach said in a statement that they draw from publicly sourced information and are intended to help voters make their own choices. “No endorsement is made and CVI’s mailings do not take a partisan position,” Lopach said.
“With COVID-19 impacting elections,” Lopach said, “we have a responsibility to do all we can to safely increase voter turnout amid this uncertain time. Our goal is to make sure eligible voters are educated and fully engaged in the democratic process. These mailers are useful tools, especially as door-to-door voter engagement is mostly on hold. In our history, we are proud to report that we have helped more than 5 million people register to vote, and have helped many more vote from home or in-person this crucial election year.”
When asked about CVI’s political expenditures, Lopach said CVI operates similarly to some nonpartisan organizations — for example, he said, the Humane Society has made independent expenditures to support specific candidates. That said, this year the Humane Society Legislative Fund, the organization’s 501(c)(4), has spent to support both Democrats and Republicans.
“Your question betrays a certain ignorance of how 501(c)4 organizations legally operate,” Lopach said in a statement. “Dozens of mainstream nonprofit organizations frequently make so-called Independent Expenditures that the FEC labels as ‘for’ or ‘against’ a political party or candidate. Nonetheless, the IRS (and major media outlets) still rightly consider these organizations as nonpartisan.”
Most sweepingly, in an Oct. 25 email, Lopach writes, “The article leaves this reader concerned about your understanding of the actual problems voters in this country face, and who is responsible for them.”
ProPublica has a long track record of accountability journalism on voting issues.
Here is a sampling of work we’ve done in the last few years on America’s election system and efforts to suppress votes:\
“Outright Lies”: Voting Misinformation Flourishes on Facebook — July 16, 2020
How the Case for Voter Fraud Was Tested — and Utterly Failed — June 19, 2018
There’s No Evidence Our Election Was Rigged — Nov. 28, 2016
How Voter Fraud Works – And Mostly Doesn’t — Nov. 3, 2016
While we have updated our story on CVI on a small number of details (they are described on the story page, consistent with our regular practice), our exchanges with Lopach leave us confident about its overall accuracy and fairness.