Clipboards were the hallmark of this group. Respect was not a virtue.
These quiet days are over now, due to the unstable political climate of the past few years and the league’s desire to be relevant to a new generation.
The league disbanded its Nevada chapter two years later after the state president wrote an op-ed July 2020 in which he accused the Democrats of hypocrisy in opposing gerrymandering within red states and “harassing” the league in Nevada for its activism on this issue.
Two days later, after the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 the league’s board labeled then-President Donald Trump a “tyrannical dictator”, and accused him of inciting violence and threatening democracy. The league demanded that he be removed from office “via all legal means”.
The league has been drawing criticism and attracting attention in unusual ways for a once-staid organization. Republicans are increasingly slamming the league and portraying it as an angry leftist group rather than friendly do-gooders.
With more right-leaning candidates dropping out of the league, voters are less likely not to hear directly form those candidates in unscripted, unfiltered forums that allow their views to be scrutinized and visible. This pushback has made the league less attractive at a time where misinformation is a major factor in election at all levels.
“The League of Women Voters, although that sounds like an interesting organization, they don’t do a lot of good work,” Catalina Lauf (a Republican candidate for Congress from Illinois) said in a May video on Instagram explaining why she refused to take part in a league sponsored debate.
Lauf claimed that the league “peddles Marxist ideology,” and is “anti American.” She spoke with ProPublica about her suspicions of the group’s support of transgender student athlete. She also claimed that the league had endorsed defunding police departments. However, this is incorrect. However, the league has endorsed sweeping reforms to police that would combat brutality and racial profiling.
Lauf stated that they need to quickly change their brand. “Because their hyperpartisanship turns off a lot women who just want commonsense.”
When refusing to take part in the league debates, conservative candidates for Wisconsin’s school board and county supervisor positions have used similar tactics. According to the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, only 30% of Republican candidates in Pennsylvania completed the VOTE411.org informational guides for the primaries. This is compared to 70% of Democrats. This guide provides voters with unabridged answers to questions about the candidates’ qualifications, priorities, and positions on specific issues.
Other policies, dominated by Republicans, make it difficult for leagues like the league to register voters. The league has been unable to register voters in Kansas because of a law change. This is a crucial part of its mission.
The league’s bylaws prohibit it from recommending candidates. By policy, board members cannot run for or hold any partisan office. They cannot also chair or fundraise for candidates for partisan offices, nor can they actively work for them.
The league is just as passionate about its founding members being crusaders. However, it is also outspoken on a variety of issues including universal health care, abortion rights and affordable child care. Since 1990, the league has advocated for gun control measures. It has also been a national voice for campaign finance reform. The league has even participated in zoning decisions in some communities.
The league has been viewed as a progressive entity by its viewpoints for a long time. “They’re very fine but they tend to have a little bit of liberality,” said the late Senator Bob Dole from Kansas about the league in a televised 1976 vice presidential discussion in Houston.
These liberal leanings are harder to ignore in recent times, which has forced the league to defend itself from claims of partisanship.
After its CEO was detained at the Kavanaugh protest, 2018, the league released a statement in which it admitted that openly opposed a Supreme Court nominee but stated that it believed the action was justified.
“This is too critical to ignore while the independence and impartiality of our judiciary are threatened.” CEO Virginia Kase Solomon settled her legal case with a $50 fine.
Sarah Courtney, the chief communications officer of the league, stated in writing to ProPublica that organizations must adapt to current events and times in order to remain relevant.
She said that the League had been an important force in American democracy for over a century and she expected it to continue its existence in the next hundred years. We have not made it this far by continuing to do things in the same manner as we did in 1920.”
Richard L. Hasen from UCLA, an expert in election law, stated that although it is clear that the league has been more aggressive on controversial issues it is the core mission of the group that makes it difficult to work with politicians. He said that voting rights can be seen as an attack against the Republican Party which has advocated for legislation making it harder to register to vote. (Republicans claim they are doing this to preserve the integrity of elections, but there is no evidence that widespread voter fraud has occurred.
Hasen, who directs Safeguarding Democracy Project at the law school, said, “It’s difficult to be seen as neutral when the political parties are dividing over questions such as voting rights.”
Hasen is proud of the league’s development. He said that the league is often portrayed as a group of elderly women gathering for tea. “I think the league is much more powerful in advocating for strong voter rights.
“Dare to fight”
Women had to fight for their right to vote for 70 years. These activist women became wary of political parties after the 19th Amendment was ratified. They wanted their votes, but not necessarily their input.
According to documents kept by the Library of Congress, suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt wrote that women in the parties should be more independent than men. They must be bold enough to stand up for what they believe in.
Catt was concerned that women might believe the party had all wisdom or virtue, paralyzing their judgement.
The league was founded in the same year that women across the country were granted the right vote. It devoted itself to specific causes and not to political parties or their leaders. Its identity was forged by its education of members and other voters during election time.
The league’s president called the “kettle of eggs”. It had 69 items on its first political agenda. Many of these items, including access to quality education and child welfare, have been priority areas for the league for decades. The league and ProPublica collaborated to create a guide that shared basic, non-partisan information in order to assist citizens in choosing among candidates and obtaining ballots.
The league seemed to have little change over the past century. But 2018 saw a turning point.
The leadership hired consultants to help them find ways to reach disillusioned voters and combat misinformation in elections. They also sought to respond effectively to the escalating racial problems facing society, including the disenfranchisement and exclusion of people of colour.
“While it is still a household name, many stakeholders are unable to describe the organization’s purpose and are unclear about their relevance,” said a consultant for the league in a 2018 report. “The League membership is older and more white than the general population. In fact, the League membership has declined by nearly a third in the last few decades.”
According to the report, membership fell from 72,657 members in 1994 to 53.284 in 2017. The league stated that membership has since recovered to more than 70,000.
There was also greater competition. There were many new non-profits that had emerged to defend voting rights . These included Indivisible, NextGen America and Color of Change, as well as the Hip Hop Caucus.
The consultant’s report states that league members knew for years that homogeneity in its membership was limiting its effectiveness and making it less appealing to a wider audience. In the face of Black Lives Matter, the league issued an official mea culpa.
An August 2018 blog post stated that the league’s president had admitted that the organization was not “welcoming to women of color throughout most of its existence.” They also pledged to create “a stronger and more inclusive democracy.” This fissure lasted for decades, with lasting consequences for the league.
The post stated that “Even during Civil Rights movements, the League wasn’t as present as it should have been.” “Activists risked their lives to register black voters in South but the League’s work was late and our leaders joined to protect all voters at polls,” the post said.
The league has become more prominent in recent years as it advocates for racial equality and fairness. It emphasized the need to reduce barriers to voting for marginalized communities. For example, the league has opposed reductions in voting hours or polling places in minority communities.
In May 2020, a Minneapolis officer shot George Floyd to death by kneeling on his neck. The league then announced that it would push for justice reforms, including those that prevent excessive force and brutality from law enforcement.
“The League of Women Voters of Minneapolis (not your grandmother’s League”), Anita Newhouse, at the time the city chapter president, wrote in MinnPost in August 2020. This was a non-profit news outlet. We are the same nonpartisan advocacy and education group that is committed to empowering voters. However, we also have a commitment to dismantling racist policies and identifying racism.
Are you a progressive, an advocate or a Democrat?
Everyone feels that the group does not apply its principles equally within the league.
Sondra Cosgrove was a College of Southern Nevada history professor who specializes in multicultural issues. She ran the Nevada league for five years as it dealt with issues like gerrymandering.
She is now not part of the organization and wonders if that’s because she wasn’t always in the Democrats’ side.
The 50-state Fair Maps strategy was launched by the league in 2019 to fight racial gerrymandering. Cosgrove, the league president in Nevada pushed for a ballot initiative to create an independent commission that would draw legislative district boundaries. This would have removed the Democrats from power, as they controlled the statehouse of the governor’s house.
Cosgrove quickly found that the ballot initiative of the league was challenged in court unsuccessfully by a Black activist, and later by the Democratic governor who refused to allow electronic signatures during the pandemic.
A week after her July 2020 opinion-ed in which she accused the Democrats of hypocrisy, and “harassing” the league in Nevada, officials at the national league office emailed Cosgrove. They instructed her to “stop making public remarks online accusing Democrats of attacking the League of Women Voters.”
Cosgrove said that she had told the league’s national offices she would not seek their input on public statements. In December 2020, the league disbanded the state chapter. Cosgrove and other members of the national organization quit and are now a part of another voting group.
Ann Marie Smith, former Treasurer of the Nevada league, stated that there was always a feeling that the league was being run by Democrats. “We tried to combat that to a large extent, but I believe the national league has gone further than they should.”
ProPublica was told by executives from the national league that it was difficult to decide to close the state chapter. This was after multiple attempts to fix policy violations that were not just related to the governor’s clash.
Courtney, the spokesperson for the league, stated that the board was forced to dissolve the Nevada league in order to preserve the organization. “Our northern Nevada league has been active with dedicated members who are determined to rebuild the league’s presence within the state.”
Sometimes, the league calls out Democrats.
The league published an update in July on Fair Maps. It stated that it had held public hearings in 24 States, used software and apps to draw fairer maps in 38 States, joined 11 state lawsuits, and six federal cases challenging maps from California, Florida and Georgia, Maryland and Michigan. Two of these states have Democrats controlling the state legislative chambers as well as the governor’s offices. Five of those states are under Republican control. The rest are under Republican control.
However, it may prove more challenging for the league to continue the work that it has done in the past.
For example, the Mountain Lakes chapter of the league has been subject to what one member called “sustained opposition” in recent years.
A parent who is also a Republican member of the borough council made complaints that the league’s Running and Winning high-school program was being canceled in 2019. The program, which was supposed to have featured female speakers from both political parties, was intended to encourage young women into politics. The parent claimed that the league was pushing a political agenda, and excluded high school boys from politics.
The school district ultimately cancelled the event.
In the months that followed, political tensions only grew worse. A member of the league board sent an email to the Laker Republican Club asking for mass membership. The league supported her, claiming she was speaking as an individual and that she didn’t refer to her role within the league.
Local Republicans running to be borough councillors reacted by refusing participation in 2020 league debates. Blair Schleicher Wilson, former Mountain Lakes Mayor, wrote in a local newspaper that she was a 25-year member of the league but now supports the candidates who have opted to leave.
Wilson, a Republican wrote that the local chapter of the league “has sadly lost its way.” She also said that she enjoyed being involved in the league, but that it should be devoted to voter advocacy. She stated that she believed their focus should be on voter services. “That’s the perfect place for them.”
Due to community tensions, the chapter lost around 30 members and is currently trying to rebuild. Mary AlosioJoelsson, former president of Mountain Lakes league, is now the organization’s events lead.
She believes Mountain Lakes conservatives have changed and not the league. She said, “Many have moved to the right that anyone walking down the middle road looks like they are on the left.”
This shift in the political climate has profound implications for the league’s most important work. After a Republican-led legislative made it a crime to “conduct that would cause another person… to believe a person is an election official”, Kansas’s organization stopped registration work.
If a volunteer mistakenly believes they are election officials, the league is concerned that it could lead to prosecution. Suzanne Valdez (Democrat, Douglas County District Attorney) acknowledged that there were issues with the law but said she would not pursue any cases for alleged violations.
She stated that “this law criminalizes essential attempts by trusted nonpartisan organizations like the League of Women Voters, to engage Kansans in participation in accessible and accountable fair elections.”
However, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt (a Republican) quickly responded that his office would prosecute any alleged violators.
The Kansas Court of Appeals granted an injunction to temporarily stop the law being enforced. However, the league lost and now seeks a review by the state Supreme Court.
Jacqueline Lightcap (co-president of League of Women Voters of Kansas), said that despite the setback, the league will continue to fight for democracy and empower voters. She said that the mission is now more difficult. It is not easy to have a dialogue with legislators about the implications of the registration law.
She stated, “We aren’t getting much traction.”