For more than a decade, Debra Cleaver ran one of the nation’s most prominent voting rights organizations. Now, she’s suing it.
Cleaver sued Vote.org on Thursday in California Superior Court for wrongful termination.
Vote.org has filed a lawsuit against the suit. It is just the latest in an ongoing series of disputes surrounding Vote.org, an online voter registration site that was a partner in previous elections with Barack Obama and the NAACP. The site’s unique URL makes it an ideal destination for celebs looking to increase voter turnout. A Taylor Swift Instagram post from 2018 helped register over 65,000 voters.
But now the woman who created the voter advocacy group is thrusting it into a legal dispute at a time when its services are most in need—less than three months before a midterm election, when voter turnout is typically at its lowest.
“I’ve devoted my career to protecting our democracy and years of my life to building Vote.org,” Cleaver tells TIME. “While it pains me to bring this suit, our democracy is fragile, and we can’t let a small group of privileged insiders advance themselves at its expense.”
The 45-page complaint alleges that Vote.org’s board fired Cleaver in August 2019 because she raised concerns over the board offering a severance package of $40,000 to an employee who voluntarily resigned. According to Cleaver, the board wasn’t authorized to make such a decision, and she said the payout came from the organization’s charitable funds, which, she claims, constituted a misappropriation. In Cleaver’s telling, the Board terminated her as CEO after she threatened to notify state and federal authorities about the severance agreement.
Vote.org, however, has a different story; it categorically denies any wrongdoing and says the allegations in Cleaver’s lawsuit are “without merit,” according to a spokesperson 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 tells TIME.
Cleaver’s spokesperson stated that she was fired because Cleaver threatened to file a report on the severage deal, which Vote.org claims was legal and justifiable, and because of Cleaver’s erratic, rude personal conduct. 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 an obstacle and alienated employees,” the spokesperson says. “The board stands by its decisions to remove Ms. Cleaver, choose her successor, and provide severance to employees.”
Cleaver’s lawsuit also alleges that the severance payout breached the rules regarding charitable trusts and other IRS violations. “This case is about a vengeful board of directors retaliating against one of its own when she threatened to expose fiduciary malfeasance,” Phil Andonian, Cleaver’s lawyer, tells TIME.
Cleaver is to be paid for back and damages, as well as compensation for the dissolution of the board. Cleaver will then be reinstated in his role as CEO.
The internal imbroglio gained 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 vote by mail to preserve access to the ballot in the presidential election without the risk of spreading the deadly virus. Vote.org, which bills itself as “the largest 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan voting registration and get-out-the-vote (GOTV) technology platform in the country,” was one of the best equipped organizations to help millions of Americans register to vote absentee.
“In 2020, we saw an increased reliance upon any type of service that was provided to the public online,” Tammy Patrick, an elections administration expert at Democracy Fund tells TIME. “We saw huge surges in online shopping. There were huge spikes in online grocery orders. Any service online that was offered to the public during a worldwide pandemic and quarantine was magnified. Anything impeding any of those opportunities would have a negative impact on the voters that turn to that platform for that service.”
“I mean, that is the best URL,” Patrick adds, referring to Vote.org. “It’s just the sort of thing that someone would look for in their search engine.”
Vote.org’s infighting led to several prominent funders to withdraw their support. Many of these donors were close to Silicon Valley. Donors tried in some instances to get their support for Cleaver’s continued leadership. The start-up guru Sage Weil offered the group a $4 million donation—but only under the condition that Cleaver remain CEO, Vox reported at the time.
It didn’t work. Cleaver, shortly after she left Vote.org was fired, founded VoteAmerica. This voter mobilization organization focuses on low-propensity voters.
Cleaver was a champion of mail-voting since it became fashionable. In 2008, Cleaver founded Vote.org (originally Long Distance Voter) to assist voters in casting absentee votes. The site was visited by hundreds of thousands every month in no time. When the Knight Foundation awarded it a large funding grant in 2015, it gave the group the boost it needed. The group was renamed Vote.org by Cleaver and took off. It helped 600,000 Americans to register for the vote in 2016, according to Cleaver.
Others voting rights activists are concerned by the lawsuit. They believe that 2022 will be a decisive year to ensure voters’ right to vote. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that 34 laws were passed last year in 19 states, which restricts access to voting rights.
“Would it hurt their fundraising? asks Nsé Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project, a nonprofit voter advocacy organization in the highly contested Peach State. “I don’t know.”
Ufot, who has partnered with Cleaver on previous voter mobilization efforts, tells TIME she can’t comment on the merits of the complaint, but feels the issue needs a resolution so that both parties involved can focus on the election. “They’ve been in the press before and it didn’t hurt their ability to walk and chew gum,” she says of Vote.org. “I just think that this is a question that needs to be settled.”
Vote.org insists that the legal battle will not prevent the organization fulfilling its mission in the consequential midterm season. This is when voter turnout can help determine the balance in Washington, and other statehouses across the country.
The Vote.org spokesperson claimed that “one in five voters” uses the organization’s tools including registering to vote, requesting an absentee ballot or identifying a polling place.
“While we are working to secure America’s future, we’ll also show that these allegations are baseless,” the spokesperson said.
Read More From Time