Ahead of the most consequential election cycle in modern history, Oakland-based Vote.org registered and informed millions of voters — a civic duty with particular resonance for CEO Andrea Hailey.
While most of us faced unprecedented challenges in 2020, Andrea Hailey’s complex year kicked off even before the ball dropped last December. The Midwest native was living in Washington, D.C., when Oakland-based Vote.org, the country’s largest nonpartisan voting registration nonprofit, asked if she’d like to transition from her position on the board into the role of CEO. It would have been a dream opportunity if Hailey hadn’t just been diagnosed with a brain tumor.
“I had to disclose to everyone that I was about to have surgery and I wasn’t sure how it would go,” she says. “I lucked out and the tumor was benign, but it was serious surgery. I was still in the neuro ICU when suddenly there we were — in 2020. I started fighting my husband for my phone so I could respond to emails. It kicked in for me that voting and access to the ballot box were things that could get rolled back, and my friends and family would be first on the chopping block.”
In lieu of her planned beach vacation recovery, Hailey swiftly transitioned into her new role, heading up the organization that originally launched in 2008 as the Long Distance Voter (LDV), and rebranded as Vote.org in 2016. It would have been daunting enough to take on the position in the wake of a historic presidential election, but 2020 had more surprises in store. “We’d already put plans together to build out a team and serve as a resource for voters. We brought in a compliance team, a legal team, made updates to the site and started researching all the things voters were facing so anyone, anywhere in the country, could come to us and have all the information they needed,” she says. “Then the pandemic hit.”
To say the global crisis had a direct impact on Hailey’s strategies would be an understatement, but the CEO was surprised by how quickly voters themselves took the reins in adapting to change. “I thought we’d have to do a lot of voter education around mail-in voting, but what was really interesting was that right away requests for absentee ballots became wildly popular on the site, even before we sent out any messages about it,” she says. “The American public already knew what was up.” In addition to serving as a comprehensive resource for absentee ballots, Vote.org registers new voters, verifies registration status and provides important links, deadlines, polling location details and other essential voting information for each state. The nonprofit also partners with corporations and other organizations in the civic space, which Hailey says was an integral piece of her revised 2020 plan.
The biggest shifts in strategies came around partnerships,” she says. “The way we traditionally partnered with people had to expand greatly, and our in-person programs had to pivot to digital strategies.” The organization also implemented rapid-response protocols to keep voters around the country up to date on fluctuating deadlines and regulations. “So many states were changing their rules around no-excuse absentee voting in real-time, so it was difficult for people to keep up,” she says. “We signed up over 10 million people for email alerts and 8 million for text alerts. People were hungry for information, and it was our duty to make sure we had it.”
Pastor Michael McBride, co-founder of Black Church Action Fund and lead pastor of Berkeley’s The Way Christian Center, says Hailey’s leadership was integral to this year’s successful turnout. “Vote.org was key to the historic engagement of Black voters in our network,” he says. “The brilliance of Andrea and her team’s vision allowed us to activate absentee voters using technology during this pandemic. We could not have done this without Vote.org.”
“Andrea immediately understood what a challenge COVID would present for voters looking to participate in the 2020 election cycle,” says Vote.org board chair Julia Rhodes Davis. “In just 24hours, she led the team to launch a rapid-response site and program that quickly became a mainstay for critical voter information as primaries shifted, deadlines changed and voting access rules updated.”
Hailey’s unflinching ability to adapt and spring into action may be in her blood: She spent her youth in the law offices of her attorney parents, who worked as partners in civil rights litigation and environmental issues. “One of the things I noticed about my parents is that it didn’t matter if it was the largest case in the office, or if it was someone coming to them from our community with a small issue,” she says. “If they could see something was wrong that needed to be right, they would support that person, even if it meant the client could only bring in payments of lasagna.
They brought me to work every day and I learned to ask, ‘What can you do to make your community better and improve the circumstances of the people around you?’”
Andrea’s father, Richard Hailey, says his daughter’s formative years clearly made a lasting impression. “My wife and I set up a nursery room in our law office — Andrea literally grew up around a lot of trial lawyers, so I guess it’s not a surprise that she was a very early talker!” he says. “It had an impact on her cognitive development, but also on her values. Our small practice was run by people trying to make a living and make a difference at the same time. By the time a client landed in our office, their lives had gone wrong in some way. We tried to make space for everyone who came through our doors and tried to guide them through the legal system and to a better place in life.”
Hailey’s father recognized his daughter’s commitment to equality early on. “In middle school, she insisted that she and another girl be allowed to try out for the junior football team,” he recalls. “Did she want to play football? No. But the school had a rule that girls couldn’t try out; if they hadn’t had that rule, Andrea wouldn’t have tried it. She thought it was institutionalized discrimination.” Although the school principal prohibited Hailey’s tryout, she retained that fire to fight against discrimination of all kinds. “When your mother is a white feminist hippie and your dad is a former Black Power activist, you’re raised a certain way,” Hailey’s father says. “I’m so proud that Andrea is working every day to defend people’s right to vote.”
Access to voting has always been an issue particularly close to Hailey’s heart. Her grandfather faced obstacles like poll taxes and police intimidation after returning from World War I because he was Black, and her great-grandmother, born to a family of sharecroppers, faced the barrier of South Carolina’s literacy test, which required people to prove they could “read and write a section of the state constitution” before being granted the right to vote.
While the 1965 Voting Rights Act prohibited racial discrimination in voting, Hailey says her family’s advocacy work continued, both in her parents’ profession and in personal acts of support, like driving community members to the polls. “I was raised with the oral history of the civil rights movement,” Hailey says. “My dad really emphasized that with a quote from Coretta Scott King: ‘Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.’ For me, that equates to really understanding our ability to vote and participating civically because it wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t have that right.”
Andrea’s leadership is a perfect mix of passion and execution,” says Vote.org communications adviser, Taylor Royle. “She has a long and personal history with voting rights … but she’s also just an extraordinary strategist. She can see all the pieces as they move and help the organization pivot to deliver maximum impact for voters. I believe other activists could learn a lot from Andrea about how to truly make progress on a host of issues.”
Although Vote.org is headquartered in Oakland, its 12 staff members work remotely, and Hailey has been leading the charge from her family’s Indiana home (where she lives with her husband, David Williamson, and dog, Alfred) since the start of the pandemic. But she says the spirit and culture of the Bay Area has a distinct influence on the nonprofit’s work.
“We’re known as a best-in-class tech operation and that comes from having roots in Silicon Valley,” she says. “Our engineers have worked at some of the top tech companies. We have companies and partners like Google who have helped us scale our operations, and many of our notable donors are in the tech industry. The Bay Area start-up culture has really influenced us to be nimble, try new things and innovate, using tech to address larger issues in the country.”Vote.org’s programs director, Sydney Rose, says Hailey’s ability to recruit top talent and foster their growth and development is just one of her biggest strengths.
“Andrea has a knack for pulling out the best of each of her staff members, understanding and naming the ways in which they are essential to the team,” she says.
After an intense year of personal and professional struggles, Hailey is finally able to take a breather on both fronts. During her surgery, doctors were able to remove the entire brain tumor, and she says she’s feeling great, only requiring annual check-up scans that she can eventually receive every two years. And after a tumultuous election cycle came to a chaotic close in November, Hailey took pride in her organization’s efforts but remains eager to push forward. “We have to take a moment and celebrate the largest voter turnout America has seen in over 100 years,” she says.“Now the work becomes about how to keep that momentum going and how to create lifelong voters.”
And while the CEO continues leading her Oakland-based organization from Indiana for the foreseeable future, she’s not ruling out a Bay Area relocation one day. “It’s been such a wild ride this year, I’ve learned to stop predicting,” she says.
This year may have presented some extraordinary obstacles, but CEO Andrea Hailey and her Vote.org team managed to hit some major milestones in 2020, including:
35.9M users in 2020, up from 4 million in 2016. Helping more than 34 million voters register, verify their registration, request a mail-in ballot or find their polling location.
1,000+ companies recruited to provide employees with paid time off to vote — from small businesses with a few employees to corporations like Apple and Shake Shack — impacting 1 million voters across the country.
80,000 voters registered through innovative partnerships with tech companies, including Fresh EBT, an app that helps SNAP recipients manage their benefits. This work helped another 285,000 verify their registration or request a mail-in ballot.
490M get-out-the-vote contacts through food trucks, billboards, radio ads and more, across all 50 states.
40,500 voters supported with food trucks and election protection information while they waited in long lines to vote early.