An apparently well-funded nonprofit organization is encouraging American citizens living in Israel to register for and vote in the upcoming US presidential elections, but those involved are steadfastly refusing to reveal who is financing the group or even who created it.

Organizers insist the campaign, called I Vote Israel, is entirely nonpartisan, though some key staffers have been closely affiliated with right-wing parties in Israel, the US and elsewhere.

The group is registered in the United States as a nonprofit under a status that does not allow for tax-deductible donations but does give it more leeway to conduct political activities. Nonpartisan voter registration groups in the US have in the past chosen to register under a similar status that prohibits political activities but allows donations to be tax-deductible.

I Vote Israel was founded by “a diverse group” of American immigrants to Israel who are “deeply concerned about the safety, security and future” of their adopted home country, according to the campaign website. “Most importantly, we want to see a President in the White House who will support and stand by Israel in absolute commitment to its safety, security and right to defend itself,” it states. “Since we believe that ‘there is no such thing as friends in politics, only interests,’ we started thinking about how to be proactive about this.”

According to I Vote Israel national campaign director Elie Pieprz, 30,000 US-Israelis voted during the 2008 elections. His goal for the current campaign is to have up to 100,000 dual citizens cast absentee ballots before the November 6 vote that will decide whether Barack Obama will remain in the White House or be replaced by his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.

“The biggest reason why people don’t vote is because it’s cumbersome. People don’t know how to do it,” Pieprz said. He and his team of paid staffers and volunteers attend events in Israel with heavy American participation to sign them up for absentee ballots. They also go “door to door” to convince people to vote and help them with the paperwork, he said.

“Each week, we’re bringing hundreds if not thousands [of voter registration forms] over to the American Embassy,” according to Pieprz. Currently, the organization running the campaign — a nonprofit called “Americans for Jerusalem,” which was incorporated in Delaware in August of 2000 — employs eight paid full-time staffers and at least one paid political strategist.

In addition to hosting the website, which features professionally produced YouTube clips, the organization also pays for office space in central Jerusalem, advertising, events, printing, travel, communication and other day-to-day expenses.

However, the group is determinedly mum on the subject of who specifically stands behind I Vote Israel and where the money for its activities comes from. Key staffers refused to reveal any names even when it was suggested that a lack of transparency might raise questions as to the campaign’s stated nonpartisan nature.

By US law, I Vote Israel does not have to divulge donor rolls because of the tax bracket it is registered under.

“We’re fundraising in Jewish communities and pro-Israel groups across the US,”
said Aron Shaviv, I Vote Israel’s campaign strategist. “There are literally hundreds of donors, perhaps even more. They are quite diverse. They are giving in small increments. There is no one who stands out.”

Asked whether this wide donor community could be considered more on the left or the right end of the political spectrum, the British-born Shaviv replied that it was “quite balanced between the two groups.”

Pieprz, on the other hand, said he believes most donors usually give to more politically conservative causes, both in the United States and in Israel. “Is it more right-of-center? I would say yes,” he told The Times of Israel in an interview. Yet he, too, declined to offer more information about who was behind the initiative.

“These are many pro-Israel people, Republicans and Democrats, who all want to have an impact on the election. They want Israel to have more of a voice,” Pieprz said. “The issue is not who’s behind it. Let’s just say they are Republicans and Democrats. Some people feel passionate about it but for their personal reasons don’t want to be associated with something that’s so pro-Israel.”

‘Want a Palestinian state? Like it or not, the US president will influence your future in Israel. Register to vote’

I Vote Israel is about giving Israel higher visibility in the American political discourse, and any discussion of its founders or funders would distract from its core mission, Pieprz added. “Some people perceive this is as somewhat more of a right-wing thing and as a result many Democrats, people who are very politically active in DC, may not want to be associated as it may hurt them professionally,” he said.

An article in +972 Magazine suggested that right-wing philanthropists could be behind I Vote Israel. Shaviv is quoted in the piece saying that much of the donated money comes from the “[Sheldon] Adelsons of the world.” One of the wealthiest Jews in the world, Adelson has given hundreds of millions to Jewish and Israeli causes over the years. He has also given tens of millions to Republican politicians, most recently $10 million to a political action committee linked to Romney’s presidential campaign.

Shaviv, who is CEO of Shaviv Strategy and Campaigns, says Adelson has no connection to “Americans for Jerusalem.” “I never met him and have no connection to him,” he said, adding that he had merely meant to say that the group’s donations come from Jewish philanthropists and that Adelson would be a good example of a Jewish philanthropist.

Both Shaviv and Pieprz have a history of working with right-wing parties. Shaviv kicked off his career as a staffer on Yisrael Beytenu’s campaign for the 2006 elections and later won Campaigns and Elections magazine’s “Rising Star 2011″ award for his work running “research-driven campaigns for center-right candidates in Central and Eastern Europe.”

Pieprz used to be active in the Republican Jewish Coalition and, after immigrating to Israel, in Republicans Abroad Israel.

An 'I Vote Israel' staff member handing in 250 absentee ballots to the US embassy (photo credit: courtesy Elie Pieprz)

An 'I Vote Israel' staff member handing in 250 absentee ballots to the US embassy (photo credit: courtesy Elie Pieprz)

His profile on the social networking site LinkedIn listed him until recently as being a member of RAI’s executive board. “RAI is engaged in voter outreach and GOTV [get out the vote] of American citizens residing in Israel as well as enhancing the GOP brand to Israelis and to the pro-Israel community in the US,” his profile stated, until last week. After speaking to The Times of Israel, Pieprz removed the reference from the profile, “saying it “never should have been there, since I was never on their executive board.”

On recent RAI newsletters, Pieprz is listed as an official; on one occasion, he is called the group’s “Ambassador to the GOP.”

When asked last week whether his involvement with the Republicans constituted a conflict of interests, he replied that he is no longer active in the group.

“I know much of the leadership of RAI, and wrote a press release for them launching their website earlier this year, and have connected them with some of my contacts when they travel to the US, but that is pretty much the extent of my professional relationship with them,” he said.

“Many of our employees are Democrats,” the Maryland native, who moved to Israel two years ago, added. “I come from a more Republican side but I want to register both Republicans and Democrats.”

The head of RAI, Kory Bardash, confirmed that Pieprz used to be involved, but after realizing that working for I Vote Israel would constitute a conflict of interest, “cut all ties” with the GOP.

A spokesman for Democrats Abroad Israel, Sheldon Schorer, said he was not surprised that Pieprz had been active with the Republicans. “I would expect that those committed to bringing out the American vote in Israel would in fact have been politically active in one of the two major parties,” he said. So far he has not seen any evidence of I Vote Israel acting in partisan manner, he added.

It’s possible to discern indications of a right-wing inclination in I Vote Israel’s online advertising, though. A small Facebook ad, for example, shows the American flag and the following text: “Want a Palestinian state? Like it or not, the US president will influence your future in Israel. Register to vote.” Raising an implied concern about Palestinian statehood would appear to put the ad’s orientation firmly on the right of the American and Israeli political spectrums; Obama has called for a two-state solution.

“Americans for Jerusalem” says it’s a “registered 501(c)4 organization,” a tax status that allows it to engage in limited political activity and keep its fundraising rolls under wraps. Most other nonpartisan nonprofits involved in the “get out the vote” business opt for a different tax status. Rock The Vote, Long Distance Voter, the League of Women Voters, and the Overseas Vote Foundation, to name just a few examples, are all 501(c)3 nonprofits.

Both 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 organizations are exempt from paying federal income taxes, but there are certain important differences. Donations to the (c)3-group are tax-deductible, donations to (c)4s are not. The latter “are, however, permitted to conduct some electoral activities so long as those are not the primary purpose of the group,” said Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the US-based Center for Responsive Politics.

“501(c)3 organizations are not permitted to engage in political activity, endorse or oppose political candidates, or donate money or time to political campaigns, but 501(c)4 organizations can do all of the above,” the CRP’s Phillip Zanders said.

One example of a 501(c)4 organization is J Street, the dovish “pro Israel, pro peace” lobby, which says it “primarily focuses on nonpartisan education and advocacy on important national issues.”

By choosing to be a 501(c)4 rather than a 501(c)3, “Americans for Jerusalem” denied donors the chance to deduct their contributions but gained the option of limited “electoral work.”

The US tax authorities did not establish exact criteria to determine what constitutes political activity in this regard. “The boundary between public education about politically charged issues on one hand and electoral advocacy on the other can be difficult to see,” Biersack said.

The Internal Revenue Services relies on what it calls a “facts and circumstances” test for deciding what activity is electoral and how much is too much, considering each case individually, he added.

Harvey Mechanic, a US attorney who specializes in the nonprofit organization law, said that “Americans for Jerusalem’s” choice of 501(c)4 status makes him suspect the group is interested in more than simply registering citizens to vote.

“There may be one, and only one, logical reason why they have chosen not to be a 501(c)3 organization — unless they did not seek competent legal advice — and that is that they want to engage in extensive lobbying activities and/or action relating to issues in addition to voter registration,” Mechanic said.

A volunteer signing up US citizens to vote on the streets of Jerusalem (photo credit: courtesy Elie Pieprz)

A volunteer signing up US citizens to vote on the streets of Jerusalem (photo credit: courtesy Elie Pieprz)

The I Vote Israel website states that “there is no such thing as friends in politics, only interests,” which might indicate it is not going to be involved simply in voter registration, according to Mechanic. “Why would they be concerned with ‘interests’ if they were simply registering people to vote?” he asked. “It appears that they wanted to have more latitude than what is allowed for 501(c)3 organizations.”

Pieprz rejected these claims. “The messaging that I Vote Israel is doing relating to projecting the political influence of Israel-based US voters is one that is not well suited for a 501(c)3. A 501(c)3 may not (I am certainly not an attorney) be able to talk about the political impact on Israel, and that certainly is a central feature of I Vote Israel’s efforts,” he wrote in email. “As a (c)4, we are well within our rights to do so; however, we still will not be able to be partisan.”

If “Americans for Jerusalem” really sought to favor one candidate over another, it would have created a SuperPAC, Pieprz argued. He was referring to a new controversial kind of political action committee that is able to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to openly advocate for or against political candidates. “But since that is not our goal, as we are not supporting an individual candidate, the 501(c)4 was the logical choice for ‘I Vote Israel,’” Pieprz said.

SuperPACs must also report who their donors are.

The I Vote Israel staff is going about its daily business of helping people register to vote without favoritism to any political party, Pieprz said. “We signed up Arabs to vote in the elections. We don’t know whether they’ll vote for Romney, but that’s not our issue,” Pieprz said.

Even if there is no hidden partisan agenda, the campaign’s work will likely help the Republican candidate merely by increasing the numbers of US-Israelis who cast ballots. According to a recent poll, conducted by Shvakim Panorama marketing, about 32 percent of American voters in Israel plan to vote for Romney, while only 15 percent said they would cast their ballot for Obama. About 30 percent are still undecided, according to the poll.

In the United States, Jews have traditionally favored the Democratic candidate and 2012 is going to be no different, albeit possibly with a lower pro-Democrat proportion than in previous elections: According to a recent poll, 62 percent of Jewish voters want to see Obama stay for four more years, compared to 30 percent who support Romney.

The political leanings of Americans living in Israel are a matter of scholarly debate, but conventional wisdom has it that this group tends to be more hawkish than its co-religionists in the New World.

“A lot of Americans here in Israel are registered Democrats. In the States, they voted Democratic and a significant portion of them might still vote for the Democratic candidate on a congressional level,” said Bardash, the head of Republicans Abroad Israel. “But clearly, when it comes to the presidential elections, they overwhelmingly vote Republican,” as it is the commander-in-chief who decides about US foreign policy and thus directly influences their daily lives.

If we can get 100,000 people to vote, politicians in the US would take us more into consideration. Forget about who they vote for. Just the fact that they’re registered to vote in itself is powerful’

In 2008, US-Israelis apparently overwhelmingly favored the Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain, with surveys showing that more than three quarters voted for him and less than a quarter for his Democratic opponent, who ended up winning the race. Bardash predicts that this year the number of absentee voters casting their ballot for the GOP candidate will be even higher as people are unhappy with Obama.

Local Democrats argue that Israeli-American voting patterns are similar to the Jewish vote in the US, heavily favoring Obama over Romney.

“I don’t believe that the poll, which claimed a preference to the Republican candidate, accurately represents the true voting preference in Israel,” said Schorer, Democrats Abroad Israel’s counsel and spokesman. “I expect that in the coming election, as in previous elections, the Democratic candidate will be the overwhelming choice of Jewish voters in both Israel and the US.”

Meanwhile, the staff of I Vote Israel says their campaign seeks to do more than help American-Israelis determine whether Obama or Romney will inhabit the White House next year.

“If the number of people who registered to vote in Israel becomes public in September, if we could significantly surpass the 30,000 [who voted in 2008] — that’s a statement. If we can get 80,000 or perhaps even 100,000, politicians in the US would take us more into consideration,” Pieprz said. “Forget about who they vote for. Just the fact that they’re registered to vote in itself is powerful.”