Updated: Jul 3
by Guest Contributor, Samuel T. Lair
May 30th 2023
A vast network of liberal dark money is using ballot initiatives to buy substantial electoral reforms that would otherwise be impossible.
Over the past five years, Michigan has been completely transformed by a series of ruinous electoral reforms. This development, however, has nothing to do with some Trump-induced hangover or the popularity of its Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer. These reforms are part of a nationwide conspiracy concocted by a vast network of leftist dark money using “nonpartisan” proxy organizations and the ballot initiative loophole to circumvent the ordinary political process.
In Michigan, the principal puppet behind these reforms has been a little-known “nonpartisan advocacy organization” with the anodyne name of Voters Not Politicians (VNP). VNP supposedly began when Katie Fahey, a 27-year-old recycling activist, made a Facebook post about ending gerrymandering that went viral after the 2016 election.
Beyond this humble origin story, however, the details surrounding the organization are much shadier. Nancy Wang, the current executive director and a former law professor at the University of Michigan, is listed as a co-founder. Fahey has since departed the organization, and her story, once widely touted by the organization, is now nowhere to be found within their messaging.
Meanwhile, its supposed nonpartisanship had been called into question as early as 2017, when seven of its 10 board members were revealed to have donated to Democratic politicians in the past. This association with state Democrats has since only become more intimate. The current chairman of the board once served as the chief of staff to the former minority leader of the statehouse. At the same time, its vice chair is the executive director of the notoriously unbiased Michigan chapter of the League of Conservation Voters.
Even more revealing is VNP’s finances. During the 2018 election cycle, Voters Not Politicians notably received a large donation of $250,000 from Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee, odd for a supposedly “nonpartisan” organization. However, that donation accounted for only a fraction of the more than $16 million it received.
As noted by Politico and former OpenSecrets reporter Jessica Piper, the vast majority of that funding came from out-of-state, liberal dark money groups, with two-thirds of it coming from only two organizations: Sixteen Thirty Fund and Action Now Initiative, which contributed $6 million and $5 million, respectively.
Action Now is a Texas-based advocacy nonprofit created by liberal mega-donors John and Laura Arnold. Sixteen Thirty, the more nefarious of the two, is a “liberal dark money Behemoth,” which operates as one of the chief organizations housed within the Arabella Network. The Arabella Network is a conglomerate of affiliated advocacy non-profits with a combined war chest of over $1.6 billion. It is managed by Arabella Advisors, a D.C.-based philanthropic consulting company that advises big-money liberal donors. The company was founded by Eric Kessler, a former Clinton administration official and national field director for the League of Conservation Voters. He also served as the president and chair of Sixteen Thirty.
Uncoincidentally, VNP’s efforts have only served to promote a leftist agenda. In 2018, VNP broke onto the scene when it orchestrated Michigan’s successful adoption of an independent redistricting commission through the ballot initiative process. The amendment, authored by current Executive Director Nancy Wang alongside other “national experts,” was billed as creating a politically balanced institution controlled by ordinary citizens. It exemplified neither of these traits.
The commission’s fatal flaw is that the random citizens appointed to the commission lacked both extensive political and legal knowledge or proficiency in geographical information systems. This learning curve resulted in a cadre of legal, technical, and academic experts exercising an inordinate influence over the commission’s decisions.
The fruits of this process were what one would expect. Previously, the Michigan legislature apportioned its districts to account for existing county and municipal boundaries, producing legislative districts tied to real communities. At the behest of their “experts,” commissioners did away with this precedent, sacrificing the integrity of rural communities to prop up the population figures of majority Democratic districts in the name of “partisan fairness.” Unsurprisingly, Michigan Democrats flipped the state legislature and captured a majority of congressional seats during the 2022 midterms.
Following this performance, in 2022, VNP donated $1.7 million to Promote the Vote, which managed another successful ballot initiative cementing several electoral reforms into the Michigan Constitution. Promote the Vote also received $10 million from the aforementioned Sixteen Thirty Fund. The initiative constitutionalized early and absentee voting, mandated state-funded ballot drop boxes, and permitted the private takeover of election operations.
The left’s interest in promoting absentee voting and drop boxes and their connection with ballot harvesting is by now well documented. More troubling is the initiative’s permanent establishment of private funding for election administration. As noted by Steve Miller, since 2020, left-wing groups have vastly expanded their efforts to use private donations to influence and run elections.
These organizations, “staffed by progressive activists that include former Democratic Party advocates, organized labor adherents and community organizers,” have been handed over the functions managing our elections traditionally handled by local governments. In effect, these takeovers amount to government-sponsored get-out-the-vote drives for the Democratic base.
Many of these organizations are again connected to the Arabella Network of nonprofits, which spent a combined $520 million in 2020 as part of its initiative to “defend democracy.” Another influential whale was Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, who donated over $400 million in 2020 to the left-wing Center for Tech and Civic Life. The significant boost these efforts gave to Democrats during the 2020 election was recently outlined by The Caesar Rodney Election Research Institute.
The strategy of big liberal dark money in propping up VNP in Michigan is obvious: Destroy the viability of GOP candidates and re-secure the state’s position in the “blue wall.” To accomplish this goal, use the initiative loophole and millions of out-of-state dark money under the guise of a “nonpartisan grassroots coalition” to circumvent the existing legislative body and dupe voters into delivering their redistricting process into the hands of leftist academics. Then, use the same tactic to achieve additional electoral reforms, protected from repeal by the state Constitution, solidifying a structural advantage for Democrats in the state’s legislature and congressional delegation.
From there, VNP has declared its “next logical step” in its “pro-democracy movement” to be deploying money and influence to strong-arm the state legislature into joining the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, securing Michigan’s 16 electoral votes for Democratic nominees and preventing the prospect of another 2016-like surprise.
Once all this is carried out, VNP declares one of its ultimate goals to be campaign finance reform to end “the power and influence of special interest groups with hidden agendas.” In other words, once it’s ensured that Michigan will stay blue, make sure no opposing organization can reverse its efforts by replicating its strategy.
While this particular fifth column is confined to Michigan, its model exists across the country. There is currently a vast network of liberal dark money that will continue to use ballot initiatives peddled by “local nonpartisan organizations” to pay their way into achieving substantial electoral reforms that would otherwise be impossible through the ordinary legislative process.
At the moment, however, conservatives don’t seem cognizant of the fact that every election cycle they are fighting and losing major battles in the ballot box that have nothing to do with who holds what office. VNP’s success in Michigan is a stark warning of how the left is finding new ways to destroy whatever remains of our constitutional order. It is a strategy that can, is, and will be replicated nationwide. Welcome to the age of “nonpartisan” politics.
Samuel Lair is a graduate student at the Hillsdale College Van Andel School of Statesmanship.