League of Women Voters Educates the American Electorate

By Elizabeth Kelleher
USINFO Staff Writer

This article is the third in a series on U.S nongovernmental organizations.

Washington - In October, Melpi Jeffries visited a retirement home in Bethesda, Maryland, to speak to residents, some of whom have impaired vision, about the upcoming election and, specifically, about the ballot. 

Jeffries named each candidate and outlined his positions on issues.  She gave a plain-English version of the “legalese” used in ballot questions.  She did not advocate for a party, candidate or outcome.  Jeffries represented the League of Women Voters. 

With 900 chapters in 50 states, the league divides its mission into two distinct functions:  the education of citizens, which includes the work Jeffries does when explaining a ballot, and issue advocacy. 

Mary Chapman Catt founded the league at the last meeting of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1920, just as a constitutional amendment passed allowing women to vote.  Catt wanted the women who worked to obtain the right to vote – suffragettes - to inform this new bloc of voters about the mechanics of voting and political issues.

To educate citizens, the league visits secondary schools and naturalization ceremonies to teach new voters to register, publishes voter guides and sets up hotlines to answer questions about getting a ride to the polls or other logistical challenges.  Local chapters focus on areas that have had low turnout in previous elections.

Though the league is not affiliated with any political party, it is political, and therein lies its second function:  advocacy.  While Jeffries educates voters about a given ballot, League President Mary Wilson might be on Capitol Hill advocating for “D.C. voting rights.”  (The District of Columbia, the political jurisdiction that encompasses Washington, is not part of any state and therefore does not have a voting representative in Congress.)

“We’ve done it for hundreds of issues,” Wilson said.  The league will research an issue, sometimes for years, and then vote by chapter to take a position supporting or opposing it.  The league has supported civil rights and abortion rights and now is considering the topic of immigration reform, a contentious issue for the Congress recently.

Wilson said she draws strength from the league’s earlier stands, especially those taken during the 1950s, when she was just a child, against what she calls a “witch-hunt” by the late Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, who accused many Americans of affiliation with the Communist Party.  “We stood up for the Bill of Rights,” she said.  In her tenure, she has argued against the USA PATRIOT Act, which expanded federal powers for law enforcement, but triggered league concerns about effects on individual civil rights.

The organization offers members a way to express opinions effectively and, sometimes, an entry into local politics.  Jefferies remembers the first time she spoke at a county hearing about the rights of trailer owners.  “I was so afraid,” she said, “but at the end, I took a deep breath, and the whole room erupted in applause.”

But the league is getting old; the average age of membership is “the late sixties,” according to its spokeswoman.  Because American women have joined the work force en masse, “we’ve run out of ladies who give us endless amounts of free time,” said Grace Malakoff of the Washington chapter.  Some call for a new name - men, who are 3 percent of membership, might be put off - or slogan.  There are 140,000 members, down 13 percent from a peak in the 1970s, when the league gained much visibility for hosting presidential debates. 

The league sponsored presidential debates in 1976, 1980, and 1984 and ended its involvement prior to the 1988 general election, because of “candidates trying to control what we think should be a nonbiased way of bringing information to the public,” Wilson said.  The major political parties wanted more say in the choice of moderator and who was allowed in the hall, for instance, she said. 

Paul Kirk, who was chair of the Democratic National Committee at the time and now co-chairs the Commission on Presidential Debates, said that the parties simply wanted to take control of the debates to influence incumbent presidents and forestall the “likelihood that an incumbent wouldn’t debate his opponent.”

A spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee said the party would not “weigh in on this story.” 

Norman Ornstein, resident scholar on politics and elections at the American Enterprise Institute, a policy research organization, said because the league is a “reform organization” capable of taking on election reforms, people in each party apparatus are wary of its threat to the status quo. 

“But it is not easy [for the parties] to stereotype this group as naive reformers,” Ornstein said.  “Its image in the United States is a very positive one.  This is a group of people who want fairness in the election system.”

Kirk said he is “a big fan.”  Despite the league’s dwindling membership, he said, it remains “strong and active and vibrant.”  As a political veteran, he admires the league’s grassroots structure.  “They perform well at the state level or the local level, and that’s where the votes are cast - outside the Beltway,” said Kirk, referring to the highway circling the Washington area.

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