This Little-Known Foundation Is Pushing “The Big Lie” and Voter Suppression Laws

The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, a major funder of rightwing groups promoting the Big Lie about the 2020 presidential election, is also pushing voter suppression policies in states across the country, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has learned.

Based in Maryland, the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation (“the Foundation”) is led by its namesake, the daughter of Shelby Cullom Davis, who made a fortune on investments and insurance and once chaired the right-leaning Heritage Foundation. The Foundation disclosed net assets totaling $1.5 billion on its 2020 IRS filing obtained by CMD.

In analyzing the Foundation’s latest IRS filings between 2018 and 2020, CMD found that it gave $3.7 million to 13 voter suppression groups. Many of the grants are designated for “election integrity” — rightwing code words for restricting voting rights.

In addition, the Foundation’s IRS filings for those three years detail $24 million in contributions to DonorsTrust, the preferred donor conduit of the Koch political network. DonorsTrust pumped over $137 million into rightwing groups in 2020 alone — including millions to the same voter suppression groups funded by the Foundation — according to a CMD analysis of its last IRS filing.

Here are the voter suppression groups the Foundation supported between 2018 and 2020, presented in descending order of funding granted:

Lawyers Democracy Fund — $625,000

Over the three-year period (2018–20), the Lawyers Democracy Fund (LDF) received a total of $625,000 in Foundation grants for its “election integrity project.” LDF’s IRS filings show that the Foundation’s $200,000 grants in both 2018 and 2019 accounted for its entire revenue those years.

The Foundation’s 2019 IRS filing states that the $200,000 is for “educational initiatives, policy research activities and public interest litigation efforts with respect to the vital issues of electoral system integrity throughout the United States.” Its 2020 grant of $225,000 is similarly worded.

LDF President Harvey Tettlebaum was the former president of the Republican National Lawyers Association (2003–06) and LDF Secretary Elliot Berke currently serves as Georgia’s special assistant attorney general and on the Board of Advisors of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

LDF advocates for strict voter ID laws and opposes all mail-in ballots and mandatory voter registration — policies that make it more difficult for people to exercise their right to vote.

Much of LDF’s public-facing work is in the courts. In January it helped overturn Pennsylvania’s no-excuse absentee voting law in Commonwealth Court and filed an amicus brief with Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) in the Supreme Court case Berger v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, arguing in favor of giving the state legislature the power to intervene to defend the constitutionality of North Carolina’s voter ID law.

LDF and two other grant recipients, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Honest Elections Project, also filed briefs in the case, which was argued on March 21. The groups are trying to get the Supreme Court to embrace the “independent state legislature doctrine,” a fringe theory that resurfaced during attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, by arguing that only state legislatures can control federal elections — without any limitations from state courts or constitutions.

As the ranking member on the U.S. House Administration Committee, Davis leads Republicans in their Faith in Elections Project to combat efforts by Democrats to safeguard elections and expand access to the ballot box.

American Civil Rights Union — $550,000

The American Civil Rights Union (ACRU), rebranded as the American Constitutional Rights Union in 2019, received $550,000 in grants from the Foundation for its voter suppression efforts. ACRU had $810,000 in revenue as of its last IRS filing and is led by Lori Roman, ALEC’s former executive director.

ACRU received grants of $125,000 in 2018 and $150,000 in 2019 for “election integrity” and $300,000 in 2020 for a project to “protect elderly and military votes” and “voter educational initiatives.” The longtime voter suppression group launched its Protect Elderly Votes Project in April 2020 “to protect seniors from those who may wish to defraud them of their vote.”

ACRU’s Project “applauded” the Racine Sheriff in Wisconsin for identifying what he claimed were eight cases of voter fraud at a nursing home in the area. The sheriff recommended criminal charges against five election commissioners, but prosecutors have not acted due to a lack of evidence.

Two national leaders of misinformation about widespread voter fraud serve on ACRU’s policy board: Ken Blackwell, chairman of the MAGA Voter Suppression Center, and Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the Heritage Foundation’s Election Law Reform Initiative.

Judicial Education Project / The 85 Fund — $450,000

The Foundation granted the Judicial Education Project — now rebranded as The 85 Fund — $450,000 in 2020 for “election integrity initiatives in various states.” The large grant likely went to the fund’s Honest Elections Project (HEP).

HEP is a dark money voter suppression group formed in February 2020 by Leonard Leo‘s network. Known as Trump’s “judge whisperer,” Leo worked behind the scenes during the Trump administration to organize a rightwing takeover of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In addition to pushing misinformation about voter fraud, HEP has placed ads opposing mail-in balloting and advocated for purging voter rolls. It is also developing model voter suppression policies for ALEC, and organized at least two multi-day voter suppression summits for ALEC members preceding its Annual Meeting, along with last year’s States and Nation Policy Summit.

CMD obtained memos that HEP distributed to ALEC members at the summit, loaded with rightwing spin on Congress’s Freedom to Vote Act, state election laws, and polling from HEP Action claiming that West Virginia voters oppose the Freedom to Vote Act and ending the Senate filibuster.

Blackwell and HEP’s Executive Director Jason Snead, a former senior policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation (where he developed the Heritage Election Fraud Database with Spakovsky), were among the speakers at the first voter suppression summit.

American Legislative Exchange Council — $440,000

The Foundation granted ALEC a total of $550,000 in 2020, with $440,000 of that designated exclusively for “accurate and verifiable voter rolls: an American public awareness campaign.” ALEC’s revenue for 2020 was just under $8 million.

In the past year, CMD has repeatedly blown the whistle on ALEC for falsely claiming that it does not work on voting issues. In September 2021, CMD obtained and published a video of CEO Lisa Nelson enumerating the states where ALEC was working on voting issues and stating that it would outsource actual model policy development.

“We don’t have model policy,” Nelson told the Council of National Policy audience. “We will be developing that at the Honest Elections Project [seminar] — through them.” ALEC held voter suppression summits with HEP at both of its national conferences in 2021.

In April 2021, The New York Times published details of a $24-million Heritage Action for America voter suppression plan (obtained by Documented) that described its efforts to work closely with ALEC to move legislation in “crucial states.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also said at the time that he had spoken with state legislators through ALEC about passing state bills that restrict voting rights and impose greater legislative control over how elections are run. CMD research found that more than 100 Republican politicians connected to ALEC in just six battleground states were lead sponsors or co-sponsors of those bills.

When a broad coalition of more than 300 civil rights and democracy reform groups called for ALEC’s corporate members to leave the organization in June 2021 because of its voter suppression efforts, ALEC’s response was swift and righteous.

“ALEC doesn’t have ‘template legislation’ on voting because ALEC doesn’t work on voting issues,” its CEO Lisa Nelson wrote in a Real Clear Politics opinion piece. “The allegation is a literal fabrication.”

And, in a letter obtained and published by CMD, Nelson told ALEC members that “the assertions included in the coalition letter are categorically false…. ALEC does not create or promote policy models on election reform/security.”

The Foundation grant to ALEC — specifically earmarked for voting work — provides the latest evidence that ALEC is lying to both the public and its corporate members.

Public Interest Legal Foundation — $300,000

The Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) received a total of $300,000 in 2019 and 2020 for “public interest litigation activities in connection with preserving the constitutional framework of the American elections project” and “election integrity.”

PILF is led by J. Christian Adams, who has moved the group to focus on the threat of “voter fraud,” despite lack of evidence that this is a widespread problem. PILF has filed numerous lawsuits across the country with the goal of purging state voter rolls, and saw its revenue climb to $3.8 million in 2020.

Its Board Chair Cleta Mitchell is a senior legal fellow at the Conservative Partnership Institute, where she chairs its Election Integrity Network. She participated in the infamous call in which Trump told Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s victory in the state.

Blackwell, Spakovsky, and insurrectionist John Eastman are also PILF board members.

Texas Public Policy Foundation — $300,000

In 2019 and 2020, the Foundation distributed grants totaling $300,000 to the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) for “election integrity.”

With revenues of $17.7 million in 2020, TPPF launched an Election Integrity Project in March 2020 that spread the myth of widespread voter fraud and helped Texas Republicans put the right spin on the voter suppression bills passed there in 2021.

TPPF also spread misinformation about the For the People Act, the federal voter protection legislation that has stalled out in Congress.

Thomas More Society — $250,000

The Thomas More Society (TMS) received $250,000 in 2020 for its “election integrity initiatives.” The rightwing litigation outfit’s 2019 and 2020 IRS filings show its revenues almost doubled in that one year — from $9.6 million to $17.4 million.

TMS’s Amistad Project has played a key role in challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election alongside rightwing allies in the swing states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

TMS is a proponent of the election subversion strategy of giving state legislatures (such as in Michigan) the ability to certify electors.

Earlier this month TMS also released a report on its review of the 2020 election in Wisconsin, where it claimed it found evidence of voter fraud. The organization shared an office with former Wisconsin Supreme Court Judge Michael Gableman, who was hired by State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) to conduct an election review.

Eagle Forum Educational and Legal Defense Fund — $200,000

The Foundation distributed $200,000 in 2020 to the Eagle Forum Educational and Legal Defense Fund (EFELDF) for an “election integrity project.” EFELDF’s 2020 IRS filing is not publicly available but it brought in $1.3 million in funds in 2019.

EFELDF’s activities around elections and voting appear to center on filing amicus briefs such as the one in support of U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly in Kelly v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which asked the U.S. Supreme Court to forbid Pennsylvania from certifying its 2020 election results because the legislature allowed for no-excuse absentee voting.

Virginia Institute for Public Policy — $160,000

The Virginia Institute for Public Policy (VIPP) received $60,000 in 2019 for “election integrity programs” and $100,000 in 2020 for “the Tuesday Morning Group coalition impact and election integrity program.”

The organization’s latest publicly available IRS filing (2019) details the smallest total revenue — $141,501 — among all of the Foundation’s grant recipients.

On its website, Virginia Institute claims its Tuesday Morning Group “has over 1,000 participants representing more than 260 organizations.” It’s unclear whether the Virginia Institute-led Virginia Fair Elections Coalition is an offshoot of this group or the same one but with a different name.

Virginia Institute published The Virginia Model on “election integrity” earlier this month, detailing an approach that Lynn Taylor, president of VIPP and chair of Virginia Fair Elections, credits with helping the GOP realize massive gains in the 2021 elections.

In listing the “experts” it consulted with, the Virginia Fair Elections Coalition cites J. Christian Adams from PILF, Cleta Mitchell from Conservative Partnership Institute, Hans von Spakovsky from the Heritage Foundation, Ken Cuccinelli from Election Transparency Initiative, and Chris Marston, general counsel for the Republican Party of Virginia. The Thomas More Society’s Amistad Project is also listed as a “partner.”

As a guest on Mitchell’s Who’s Counting podcast, Taylor and her host recently touted the efficacy of the Virginia model in achieving voter suppression goals.

Abby Spencer Moffat, the Foundation’s CEO, sits on VIPP’s board of directors.

Judicial Watch — $150,000

The Foundation gave Judicial Watch $150,000 in 2020 for “election integrity initiatives.” Tom Fitton leads the group, which reported $110 million (2020) in revenue and, like PILF, has focused its voter suppression efforts on purging voter rolls in the states.

The same year it received the grant, Judicial Watch published a “study” making dubious claims “that 353 U.S. counties had 1.8 million more registered voters than eligible voting-age citizens.”

While not directly addressing the study, the Brennan Center calls large-scale purges “risky because of the sheer numbers of records involved,” and cautions against using “third-party information” to remove voters because it does “not come directly from a voter” and “will inev­it­ably include errors.”

Judicial Watch has also litigated to purge state voter rolls and filed amicus briefs supporting voting rights restrictions.

Americans of Faith — $100,000

The Foundation gave Americans of Faith (AOF) $100,000 in 2020 for an “election integrity project.” AOF has no web presence beyond a Facebook page that hasn’t been active since May 2020.

Its latest publicly available IRS filing (2019) shows that it brought in $1.1 million for the mission of “voter education.”

AOF is led by Ralph Reed, founder and president of the dark money group Faith & Freedom Coalition and a GOP operative. Faith & Freedom is a Christian right electioneering outfit that works to turn out Republican voters.

FreedomWorks Foundation — $100,000

FreedomWorks Foundation received $100,000 in 2020 “to be allocated exclusively toward the election integrity program.” Despite bringing in $8.3 million in revenue that year, FreedomWorks Foundation does not have a web presence.

Its larger sister organization, FreedomWorks, is a major rightwing group that launched the National Election Protection Initiative in March 2021. Led by Mitchell, it has focused on opposing federal voting rights bills, backing voter suppression legislation, and building state “election integrity” infrastructure in the swing states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

In 2020, the year its Foundation received the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation grant, FreedomWorks held “Election Protection” trainings for activists to counter “mail-in ballot fraud.”

Ballotpedia — $50,000

The Foundation granted Ballotpedia $50,000 in 2019 for “general support and the Election Integrity Content Project.” Officially registered with the IRS as the Lucy Burns Institute, Ballotpedia brings in over $8 million in revenue, and is run by rightwing operative Leslie Graves.

The group publishes pages on “election integrity” and “voter suppression” that may be part of the Foundation-funded content project.