United They Stand

The 140,000-strong League of Woman Voters speaks with one voice.

September/October 2006

Reading time min

United They Stand

Photo: Susana Raab

The League of Women Voters has been around as long as the United States has had, well, women voters. The organization founded in 1920 by suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt now boasts 850 state and local leagues with 140,000 members and supporters. They observe city council meetings and write voter guides, educate the public about the role of the judiciary and lobby for the preservation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “We are not limited to women, and we are not limited to voting, but other than that it’s a great brand name and we’re sticking with it,” says Nancy Tate, who has been the league’s executive director since 2000. Tate, ’70, spoke with Stanford about the league today.

Could you tell us about the structure of the league?

We actually have two parts—we’re both an advocacy organization and a public education organization. The public education part is called the League of Women Voters Education Fund. We’re organized in the same way that the U.S. government is organized, so we have a national league and state leagues and local leagues. Each level of league is authorized to do a variety of things appropriate to its level. So at the national level, we do some advocacy work on Capitol Hill. We design materials that leagues can use, since virtually all of the people who are active in the league are volunteers. Oftentimes [local] leagues sit outside of a library or in a mall and register people to vote. They typically have debates—we no longer do the presidential debates at the national level, but state and local levels do debates. The league is the neutral convenor who brings the candidates together.

What are you doing to educate voters?

This year we’re launching a new national website called Vote 411, which will have, by state, all of the basic requirements you would need to know in order to vote. For example, what are the registration deadlines, what are the absentee ballot deadlines, what ID requirements are there, what is your polling place, do you have early voting? This year and in years to come we’re having more of this information about the election system, now that people are more aware that there’s some complexity there, and [wondering] what machines are they going to see, that sort of thing. One of the under-understood reasons for disenfranchisement is that a lot of people don’t know where they’re supposed to vote. Even at national, people will call us from Nebraska and say, which is my polling place?

The league has a reputation for delivering trustworthy voter information. How do you make this work with a primarily volunteer base?

Well, that’s our history and our culture. People don’t tend to join the league if they don’t get into that. Nonpartisanship is very key to who we are. We consider ourselves politically active, because we do have opinions about issues, but we’re nonpartisan, so we never assert any opinions on any candidate or any party. One of the rewards of being in the league is the intellectual challenge of it, because in addition to the straight voter education we do a lot of issue education.

Is there any sort of demographic concern that the league’s volunteer base is aging?

We do have a concern about that, and I think it’s the same concern that many, many national groups have the Robert Putnam Bowling Alone scenario. The league, by the way, is not exclusively women. But it’s more women than not, and in earlier years, when women were not as active in the work force, it was easier to get more people to be members.

How does the league decide what positions to take on issues?

The league has positions on about 40 issues. Some, you can’t imagine why we’d have positions on them—you know, arms control or something. But we do. We do that through an organization-wide process involving the grassroots, and it takes a long time. So, for instance, right now, we don’t have a position on immigration, and in order to have one, we go through what can be a two- to three-year process of convening staff and committees of people, researching the issue, writing lots of articles, sending them to our members, and then crafting what we think is a set of values that could be applied at all three levels of government if appropriate. And then the members vote on it. Then that becomes our position, broadly stated. Then at each level of government, where any given bill at any given time comes up, the league in question looks at the situation and looks at what the league as a whole has said about it, and then decides are we going to be for this piece of legislation or against it. No level of league can assert an opinion or a position on an issue on which we don’t have a position.

The league recently held its biennial meeting in Minneapolis. What is that like?

It’s very exciting. Because so many league members are so interested in the substance of different topics, you have a lot of people pushing different issues. Even though they’re not doing anything in a partisan political sense, people get up at 7 in the morning. They add on to our program, they add in at breakfast, they add in after the banquet, what they call caucuses, where individual leagues will say we’re very interested in the topic of health care, energy, global warming, International Criminal Court, ERA, protection of the wetlands off the Louisiana coast. . . . People are in these sessions at 11 at night on some topic that someone else might think, who on earth wants to know about that? But they’ll fill up 50 people in a room.

Tell us about some of the more interesting and unexpected things you’ve done as executive director.

We are in a partnership—it was particularly active in 2004—with World Wrestling Entertainment, in the Smackdown Your Vote! campaign. Most people don’t think of the wrestlers and the League of Women Voters in the same breath. World Wrestling Entertainment approached us and they did commit a fair amount of resources to reach out to their demographic. And we said, gee, who are we to judge who watches [wrestling]—this is a demographic that is underrepresented in voting. Several of the wrestlers would make personal appearances around the country, and we’d match them up with a local league who would be there and register people to vote. It was quite a productive partnership. A much more emotional event was when the Iraqi election commission came to D.C. They specifically asked to come to the league, and one or two other staff and I met with them. At the end the man who was the head of the commission asked how to change the attitudes of men in Iraq so that they would see the value of women voting and be supportive of women.

And what did you say?

That’s a challenging moment when you see people looking to, in this case the league, but also the United States, for guidance for a period of time which for us is 85 years ago, and of course none of us were here to know how the women in 1915 [did it]. And not everything translates to Iraq, and this was before the higher level of violence ensued. But you need to actually go to decision makers, elected officials, and say, these are our issues: women care about education for their children, some of the health care issues. You point out how many of you are going to vote. And then [a woman] gets elected to something or gets an appointed position, and [she doesn’t] screw up, and you start to see where women can make their own contribution. They seemed to know that. Listening to some of these women on this commission saying, we are widows, Saddam Hussein killed many of our husbands, we have to have a more active role because we have no way to support our families—it was very emotional for us, and humbling. You’d like to think you have a nice simple answer that you can tell somebody and their life will be better, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.

The following is supplemental material that did not appear in the print edition of Stanford.

Tell us about international work the league is doing.

We have three people right now in Kenya working with women citizen activists in the Muslim territories or provinces, doing training on how to be proactive citizens in the sense of holding your government accountable. Every year we do a couple of different programs. [Although] we’re not primarily an international group, this interest in women internationally does go back to our founding. We were very active in the 1940s in the creation of the United Nations and were present at the signing of the U.N. charter, and we have official observer status at the U.N. today. And several of our New York league members go four days a week and participate in U.N. subcommittees and so forth.

A number of countries in recent years have changed their constitutions to have sort of a quota for so many women to be elected. Well, none of these women have ever run before, so sometimes we get involved with trainings on being a candidate—not what your position is, but how to be one. But more often we do the citizen’s role and government accountability, government transparency. We’re going to be doing some exchange programs with people coming from Russia and the Ukraine, and we’re in the midst of one in Kenya. We had six Kenyan women come and visit several of our leagues for a few weeks in April. We’re in Kenya now putting on training sessions, going back to the communities where our visitors came from, but not speaking just to them—they helped organize training sessions for large numbers of women along the coast of Kenya and in the north area.

What are the most important things for voters to be paying attention to on the national level for the 2006 election?

At the national level we just don’t make a statement about that. The things we are spending our time on are concerns we have with the election system. A lot of our work and a lot of our emphasis is trying to keep people from being disenfranchised. Election 2000 shone the light on a lot of procedural issues in the U.S. election system that the league knew were there, but most people didn’t. We helped pass into law the Help America Vote Act of 2002. The states are in the process of implementing it, but with a lot of variation, and so in some cases we’re concerned. We see state laws or bills that raise the level of identification that voters have to show, over and above what is required by the federal law. In general, if you say that to most members of the public, they say, well, everybody has a driver’s license. Well, in fact, everybody doesn’t have a driver’s license. A lot of elderly people don’t have driver’s licenses, and a lot of people in inner cities don’t have a driver’s license. There are concerns in California and elsewhere about voting machines. We are focusing on trying to fix these things, but we don’t want people to say in case this machine fails I might as well not even bother. They definitely should go and vote. We try to work within the system in different ways to improve those things, but to also make sure the voters know exactly what to expect so that they can go in and vote—they have the right ID, they know what kind of machine it is, so they don’t have the kind of butterfly ballot case where they didn’t know what to do.

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.