Meet the big donors behind the Ranked Choice Voting 2020 Committee


For the Gazette

Published: 10-27-2020 3:00 PM

BOSTON – Wealthy philanthropists from around the country are teaming up to carry the burden of financial support for Question 2, the Massachusetts ranked-choice voting ballot initiative, citing it as an important political reform.

Amid growing polarization and disputes, it has become increasingly important to preserve the basic function of voting in our representative democracy to maintain a mechanism that allows Americans to solve issues despite ideological differences, said Marc Merrill, a member of the board of Unite America, which bills itself “a movement of Democrats, Republicans, and independents working to put voters first by fostering a more representative and functional government.”

“I personally think that this is the No. 1 issue that our generation must solve in order to solve all other issues that we’re facing today,” said Merrill, the co-founder and co-chairman of Riot Games. “I think the way to do it is through things like ranked-choice voting and through organizing into groups where we can coordinate and collaborate to have a healthier government where we can respect the ability of everyone to disagree on things and come together and try to compromise.”

Merrill donated $275,000 to the Ranked Choice Voting 2020 Committee in two payments. Kathryn Murdoch, another board member and co-founder and president of Quadrivium, donated $1.75 million in five payments. Murdoch is the daughter-in-law of News Corp Executive Chairman and Fox Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch.

“I’m a little tired of think tanks opining on how confusing ranking candidates would be to the ‘average’ voter,” wrote Murdoch on Twitter. “Voters in Maine can handle it, why not Massachusetts?” Maine’s primary and general elections for governor, state legislature, and federal congressional offices have been conducted by ranked-choice voting since 2016, according to FairVote.

Ranked-choice voting is an “increasingly common election method that allows voters to rank candidates in order of choice,” according to the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center. “Those rankings ensure that as many voters as possible will help elect a candidate they support.”

According to Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance reports, the yes side has banked $7,774,807.32, compared to the no side’s $2,842.24 in receipts.

Unite America donated $445,000 in three separate payments, according to Massachusetts OCPF reports. Several Unite America board members also contributed independently to the campaign. In addition to Merrill and Murdoch, Katherine Gehl, former president and CEO of Gehl Foods, donated $250,050 in a single payment.

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The Denver-based organization, founded by Charles Wheelan in 2013, works “to put voters first by fostering a more representative and functional government.” The organization and its members “invest in campaigns to enact reforms and elect candidates so that the right leaders have the right incentives to solve our country’s greatest problems.”

The donations come from the Unite America Fund, a “philanthropic fund and non-partisan donor community that aims to accelerate and scale the voters first movement through strategic investments.” The money in this general fund comes from large and small donors.

The fund supports the federal hybrid political action committee Unite America and the Unite America Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that files a Form 990 with the IRS annually to disclose activity and expenditure information. Unite America discloses identity information of each donor who gives more than $200 in a calendar year with the Federal Election Commission.

On the no side of the issue, Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, an IRS recognized 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, does not disclose funding sources.

“Neither the Globe nor I nor anyone outside Mass Fiscal’s secret lair knows who MFA actually represents,” said Maurice Cunningham, associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston and MassPoliticsProfs contributor. “And by represent, I mean those hidden donors.”

Unite America invests in electoral reforms, unity candidates, and movement capacity, according to its website.

“Unite America is proud to support the campaign to give Massachusetts voters more power in their elections and more choice on their ballot by adopting ranked-choice voting,” said Unite America Executive Director Nick Troiano. “As an organization committed to putting voters first, we stand behind the Yes on 2 campaign, and urge Massachusetts voters to do the same.”

Another major donor to the Yes on 2 campaign is Action Now Initiative, which made 10 separate payments totaling $3,038,850. The Houston-based organization “seeks to improve the lives of individuals through political advocacy.”

John and Laura Arnold created the 501(c)(4) tax-exempt nonprofit organization in 2011. They also co-founded Arnold Ventures, an organization that works to “drive public conversation, craft policy, and inspire action through education and advocacy.”

“Ranked-choice voting offers a better way to vote, making democracy more inclusive in a move away from a two-party election,” Arnold Ventures wrote on Twitter. “#RankedChoiceVoting is a fairer system that provides voters with more options.”

Wealthy donors often have mixed motives, Cunningham said.

“Perhaps John Arnold, who is behind much of the money, would sincerely like to see something pass which he thinks would help democracy,” said Cunningham. “To my mind, however, undermining democracy is a poor way to aid democracy.”

The wealthy, especially billionaires such as Arnold, have the ability to get an idea a respectful hearing and a ballot spot if they are willing to spend the money, Cunningham said. “No matter what you think of an individual issue, that is not democracy, it is oligarchy.”

While the Ranked Choice Voting 2020 Committee has received more than 3,600 donations, the five donors’ contributions represent 74% of the campaign’s total fund.

The large donations mostly go toward TV advertisements, said Greg Dennis, policy director for the Yes on 2 campaign.

“We started seriously thinking about a ballot question,” said Dennis. “Turns out, you need a lot of money to run a ballot question, more than you can get in small donors.”

Dennis compared securing potential donors to applying for grant money as a non-profit. The Vote on 2 organizers reach out to donors and share their vision for improving government and politics, then ask if the group or individual would be interested in investing in the idea.

“We are humbled, considering where we were four years ago, to have people wanting to invest in it and make it happen,” Dennis said. “We are very fortunate to have found some of those people.”

Merrill learned of the investment opportunity through Unite America after the campaign had reached out to the organization to network with potential donors.

“I think it’s critical for us to focus efforts on creating a better incentive structure for politicians to solve problems for the constituents that they’re meant to serve,” said Merrill. “Efforts like ranked-choice voting help realign those incentives to then enable politicians to hopefully focus on solving problems.”

Gwyneth Burns writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.