Wellor more than a decade, Debra Cleaver has led one of the nation’s most prominent voting rights organizations. Now she’s suing him.
In California Superior Court on Thursday, Cleaver sued Vote.org, which she founded in 2008, alleging wrongful termination and other charges in an attempt to regain control of the nonprofit that fired her three years ago.
The lawsuit, which Vote.org is challenging, is the latest episode in the saga surrounding the online voter registration team, which has partnered in past elections with the likes of Barack Obamaon NAACPand national basketball association. Its unmatched URL has made it a destination for celebrities seeking to boost voter turnout; a Taylor Swift Instagram post in 2018, for example, helped the site register more than 65,000 voters in less than 24 hours.
But now the woman who founded the voter advocacy group is embroiling it in a legal dispute at a time when its services are most needed — less than three months before midterm elections, when voter turnout is typically at its lowest.
“I have dedicated my career to protecting our democracy and years of my life to building it Vote.orgCleaver tells TIME. “As much as it pains me to file this lawsuit, our democracy is fragile and we cannot allow a small group of privileged insiders to prosper at its expense.”
The 45-page complaint alleges that Vote.org’s board fired Cleaver in August 2019 because she raised concerns that the board offered $40,000 in severance to an employee who voluntarily left. According to Cleaver, the board was not authorized to make such a decision, and she said the payout came from the organization’s charitable funds, which she said was a misuse. According to Cleaver, the board terminated her as CEO after she threatened to notify state and federal authorities about the separation agreement.
However, Vote.org has a different story; he strongly denies any wrongdoing and says the allegations in Cleaver’s lawsuit are “baseless,” according to a spokesman for the group, who declined to be named. “It’s disappointing that a former leader who claims to support our work to ensure all eligible Americans can vote is instead focusing on personal grievances,” the spokesperson told TIME.
The spokesman claimed that Cleaver was fired not because of her threat to report the heavy package, which Vote.org maintains was legal and justified, but because of her erratic and abrasive personal behavior. They added that Cleaver was removed as head of the organization by a unanimous vote of the group’s board “for conduct that was witnessed by multiple individuals and documented.”
“Cleaver’s behavior became disruptive and alienated staff,” the spokesman said. “The board stands by its decisions to remove Ms. Cleaver, select her successor and provide severance to the employees.”
Cleaver’s lawsuit also alleges that the compensation payment violated rules regarding charitable trusts and other IRS violations. “This case is about a vindictive board of directors who retaliated against one of their own when she threatened to expose fiduciary misconduct,” Phil Andonian, Cleaver’s attorney, told TIME.
The complaint calls for the current board to be dissolved and for Cleaver to be compensated for damages and back wages and reinstated as CEO.
The inner turmoil won media attention in April 2020, shortly after the pandemic reached the nation’s shores and it became increasingly clear that the country would need to expand mail-in voting to keep presidential voting accessible without the risk of the deadly virus spreading. Vote.org, which bills itself as “the nation’s largest 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan registration and voting (GOTV) technology platform,” was one of the organizations best equipped to help millions of Americans register for absentee voting.
“In 2020, we’ve seen an increased reliance on all kinds of services that are delivered to the public online,” Tammy Patrick, an election administration expert at the Endowment for Democracy, told TIME. “We’ve seen huge spikes in online shopping. We’ve seen a huge spike in online grocery ordering. Every online service provided to the public during the quarantine and global pandemic was increased. Anything that hinders any of these possibilities would have a negative impact on the voters who turn to that platform for that service.
“I mean, that’s the best URL,” Patrick adds, referring to Vote.org. “It’s just something someone would look for in their search engine.”
Infighting at Vote.org led to several high-profile sponsors, many with close ties to Silicon Valley, withdrawing their support. In some cases, donors tried to use their continued financial support to keep Cleaver at the helm of the organization. Startup guru Sage Weil offered the group a $4 million donation, but only on the condition that Cleaver stay on as CEO, Vox reported at this time.
It didn’t work. Shortly after leaving Vote.org, Cleaver founded VoteAmerica, another voter mobilization project that focused on electing low-propensity voters.
Cleaver has been a supporter of postal voting since before it was fashionable. She founded Vote.org, originally called Long Distance Voter, in 2008 to help voters learn how to vote absentee. Before long, hundreds of thousands of people were visiting the site every month. The organization got the break it needed in 2015 when the Knight Foundation awarded it a significant grant. Cleaver then rebranded the group to Vote.org and it took off. In 2016, the site helped approximately 600,000 Americans register to vote.
The lawsuit is troubling to other voting rights activists who see 2022 as everyone’s moment to defend voting rights. Last year alone, 19 states passed 34 new laws restricting access to the right to vote. According to to the Brennan Center for Justice.
“Will it hurt their fundraising? asks Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, a voter advocacy nonprofit in the hotly contested Peach State. “I do not know.”
Ufot, who has partnered with Cleaver in previous voter mobilization efforts, tells TIME she can’t comment on the merits of the complaint, but believes the issue needs resolution so both parties involved can focus on the elections. “They’ve been in the press before, and it hasn’t hurt their ability to walk and chew gum,” she tells Vote.org. “I just think it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.”
Vote.org, for its part, insists the legal battle will not distract the organization from fulfilling its mission during the midterm season, when voter turnout will help determine the balance of power in Washington and in statehouses across the country.
A Vote.org spokesperson claimed that “one in five voters” use the organization’s tools, including registering to vote, requesting an absentee ballot or identifying a polling place.
“As we work to secure America’s future, we will also show that these allegations are baseless,” the spokesman said.
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