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Supporting an informed, engaged, and representative democracy


By Carrie L. Davis, Democracy Program Director

It is an exciting and challenging time to join the Joyce Foundation as the new director of the Democracy Program.

Our democracy has experienced seismic shifts in recent years. Through restrictive voter access policies and partisan gerrymandering, many citizens have been systematically shut out of having their votes counted and their voices heard. In addition, it has become even more apparent how critical a fair, independent media is to a functioning democracy, and yet media institutions are facing economic challenges as well as outside attacks on their credibility. We need to invest in restoring key structures of a healthy democracy.

Last month, the Joyce Foundation announced new program strategies for 2018-2020, including changes in the Democracy Program designed to focus on the critical needs of our time.

Our Democracy Program previously cast a broad net, seeking to impact a wide range of democracy issues. Under our new plan, we are narrowing our focus, so that we can take a deeper dive on the most urgent areas of concern over the next three years – fair elections and a strong, independent media. The Fair Elections portfolio takes on three of the most critical issues facing our democracy in the next few years.

  • Voting Rights: Many states in the Great Lakes region are struggling with election laws and policies that discourage voter participation. As just one example, recently the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in an Ohio case with national implications, over whether eligible voters can be purged from voter registration lists for not voting frequently enough. (Several of our grantees played a supportive role in the Ohio case, filing amicus briefs and doing outreach to purged voters.) Joyce will support efforts to challenge restrictive voting measures, while building public support for positive reforms to improve access. Automatic voter registration, recently signed into law in Illinois thanks in part to the work of our Illinois grantees, is an example of efforts underway to improve voter access. Much of this work will focus on removing barriers for disadvantaged communities, so that we have more equitable and inclusive elections. 
  • Redistricting Reform: Elections are supposed to be determined by the voters, but many states are struggling with extreme gerrymandering, designed to determine which voters get to have their voices heard. This has the potential to be a groundbreaking year for redistricting reform. Several legal cases have been working their way up to the Supreme Court challenging extreme political gerrymandering as unconstitutional. Joyce is proud to have supported the Wisconsin case, Gill v. Whitford, as well as organizations that play supportive roles in many others. The Supreme Court ruling, expected by late June, could change the landscape for reform throughout our region. Joyce is eager to further support reform in the Great Lakes states through litigation challenging unfair maps and investing in public engagement to educate and organize the public to support reform. 
  • 2020 Census: An accurate census count is essential for redistricting, representation, and resource allocation. Unfortunately, the Census Bureau faces funding and policy challenges that could jeopardize its important work. We are especially concerned that these challenges may disproportionately impact communities that are already underrepresented – further widening racial, ethnic, and economic rifts. Joyce will focus on public education to support a well-funded census, as well as outreach to ensure a fully-engaged Great Lakes network for census work.

The Media portfolio is a strategic shift. While Joyce has long supported independent, public interest media, we have incorporated this area of our grant making into the Democracy portfolio and expanded it, recognizing that having a strong, credible media is closely intertwined with informing policy and motivating citizen engagement.

Over the next three years, we will seek to support and strengthen a sustainable media ecosystem in the Great Lakes region; fill gaps relative to geography, demographics, and coverage of Joyce issues; and support innovation in content development and delivery.

Across the Democracy Program, we will continue to partner with local community leaders, policy makers, advocates, researchers, policy experts and with other funders to ensure that our public policies are grounded in the best available evidence and the experiences of those closest to the problem. We welcome your input and partnership as we seek to improve democracy in the Great Lakes region.