In a voting league of their own

Every election, local, state and federal politicians have some tough critics to crack. But none can be tougher than the gentile-looking, prim and proper acting ladies of the League of Women Voters.

The meetings start the same way many social gatherings begin. The women trickle in, talking all the while about grandkids, kids, recent movies seen and the latest beauty secrets.

But as soon as the president’s bell rings these mothers, daughters, grandmothers and even a few fathers and other men are all business.

At league clubs all across America, leaguers discuss voter education, study of issues and action taken. Each acts as watchdogs over local government. Many participate in studies that head to the state and federal levels where stances are taken and leaguers lobby for change.

“People need to be an educated and active participant in all areas of government because somehow it will eventually personally effect you,” said Barbara Seitle, the League of Women Voters president.

The League of Women Voters was born during the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1920. It began as a “mighty political experiment” designed to help 20 million women carry out their new responsibilities as voters. It is a grassroots, nonpartisan political organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government. The League works to influence public policy through education and advocacy.

Comprised of about 100,000 members, the organization has clubs in every state, Puerto Rico, Washington D.C. and the Virgin Islands. But, as the modern League exists, its name is a misnomer, as the League is not a women-only organization.

“Men have been at the forefront of the woman’s right to vote since the beginning,” Seitle said.

The only requirements are that members must be U.S. citizens who are 18 years of age. And although someone may not meet the membership requirements, meetings and events are open to all regardless of membership.

At a membership luncheon held Wednesday at Seitle’s home, the South Whidbey League welcomed speaker Susan Hels, a law and business lecturer at the University of Washington and an ACLU volunteer. The topic of the day was the “Update of the Patriot Act and associated government activities.”

The crowd gathered listened intently to Hels’ every word, interjecting with questions and prods at her knowledge of the Patriot Act.

The event was just one of many during a busy election year for leaguers across the nation. And among the League’s priorities for the 2004 legislative session are children’s issues, education, energy, government, growth management and land use, gun control, health care, natural resources, reproductive rights, taxes and transportation. Nationally, the League of Women Voters is focusing on election reform and is part of a coalition that is working to ensure the Help America Vote Act is funded and fully upheld. To date, neither the League nor the federal government has seen the original intent of the act fulfilled — to update voting machines across the nation in time for the November 2004 election.

Last month, the South Whidbey League hosted a candidate forum at which a crowd of about 150 packed into Trinity Lutheran Church to listen to political hopefuls. After a brief introduction to the League of Women Voters, the audience received a voting lesson from Island County Auditor’s office staff regarding the new Montana Primary. The main event of the evening, however, was a question-and-answer period during which the audience could question each candidate on issues, platforms and the current state of politics in America.

“People are more passionate about his election than many in recent years and it’s important for them to get out and be informed,” said League member Marilyn Alexander. “We viewed the strong turn out as a good sign the public will be educated voters.”

The South Whidbey League is in its second year of its observer program, under which local leaguers attend city, county and other local public meetings and quietly observe whether the public is being properly informed.

The League is also getting some young, potential voters involved in the political process early. Through a partnership with Langley Middle School, students will be able to participate in the political process by helping to run a candidate forum on Oct. 7. And, in April, the League will host its annual forum on children’s issues.

Across the nation the League has proven to be a powerful force.

“Citizens and politicians will many times come to us wondering what our stance will be on issues,” said league member Nancy Francis. “We’re a known trusted force in politics and we should because we educate ourselves first and education is key.”

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