Voters wait in line to cast ballots outside a polling location at North Christian Church in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on Aug. 16, 2022. Credit - David Williams—Bloomberg via Getty Images
For more than a decade, Debra Cleaver ran one of the nation’s most prominent voting rights organizations. Now, she’s suing it.
In California Superior Court on Thursday, Cleaver filed a lawsuit against Vote.org, which she founded, for wrongful termination and other charges in an attempt to retake control of the nonprofit that fired her three years ago.
The lawsuit, which Vote.org disputes, is the latest episode in a saga surrounding the online voter registration outfit that has partnered in past elections with the likes of Barack Obama, the NAACP, and the National Basketball Association. Its incomparable URL has made it a go-to destination for celebrities seeking to boost voter turnout; a Taylor Swift Instagram post in 2018, for instance, helped the site register more than 65,000 voters in less than 24 hours.
But now the woman who created the voter advocacy group in 2008 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.
The spokesperson claimed that Cleaver was fired not because of her threat to report the severage 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 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.
The complaint seeks a disbanding of the current board, and for Cleaver to be compensated for damages and back pay, and reinstated 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. We saw huge surges in ordering groceries online. Any online service that was provided to the public in a quarantine and a global pandemic 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.”
The infighting at Vote.org led to several high-profile funders, many of whom were closely tied to Silicon Valley, pulling their support. In some cases, donors tried to leverage their continued financial backing toward keeping Cleaver in charge of the organization. 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. Shortly after her departure from Vote.org, Cleaver founded VoteAmerica, another voter mobilization project that focuses on turning out low-propensity voters. And Vote.org says it still raised more money that year than ever before. In 2016, the organization raked in roughly $2 million, whereas in 2020, it amassed roughly $18 million in revenue, according to public filings.
Cleaver has been an advocate of mail voting since before it was fashionable. She founded Vote.org, originally called Long Distance Voter, in 2008 to help voters learn how to cast absentee ballots. In short order, hundreds of thousands of people were visiting the site every month. The organization got the break it needed in 2015, when the Knight Foundation gave it a substantial funding grant. Cleaver then rebranded the group to Vote.org and it took off. In 2016, the site helped roughly 600,000 Americans register to vote.
The lawsuit is troubling to other voting rights activists, who feel that 2022 is an all-hands-on-deck moment to protect the right to vote. Last year alone, 19 states passed 34 new laws restricting voting rights access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
“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, for its part, insists the legal fight will not detract the organization from fulfilling its mission during a consequential midterm season, when voter turnout will help to determine the balance of power in Washington and in statehouses throughout 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.