In 1920, 100 years ago, 20 million women were poised to become new voters with the passage of the 19th amendment. And like today’s 18-year-olds, these newly enfranchised women needed to learn the process of voting.
In anticipation of ratification of the 19th Amendment, the National American Suffrage Association met in February of 1920 in Chicago, a full six months before final adoption of the amendment, and formed the League of Women Voters, a "mighty political experiment" designed to help 20 million women carry out their new responsibilities as voters.
Today, Feb. 14, 2020, the League of Women Voters is 100 years old!
From the beginning, the League has been a nonpartisan organization that does not endorse candidates or political parties but helps voters understand and participate in our political system. Voter service and voter education — that was the focus in 1920 and remains so today.
For the League, voter service has included helping voters understand the mechanics of voting. The newly enfranchised need to be registered to vote; absentee ballots explained; legislative districts, precincts and wards outlined; and physically marking the ballot demonstrated for those of all abilities.
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Voter service also includes protecting our right to vote. For 100 years we have fought poll taxes and property ownership requirements that kept lower-income Americans from casting their ballot. We worked for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which implemented federal oversight of election procedures in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination or people of color. We are in court today defending the Voting Right Act from discriminatory purges of voter registration roles.
Since 2012, the League has been involved in numerous lawsuits challenge gerrymandering. Gerrymandering occurs when a political party manipulates the boundaries of legislative or congressional districts to favor that party. In June 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal courts have no role in preventing political gerrymandering, freeing each state to set its own rules. The League responded by engaging all 50 state Leagues in a campaign to ensure fair redistricting in every state.
The second League focus is voter education. Understanding the mechanics of voting is only half of a new voter’s responsibility. Learning how to pick a candidate and how to study issues is essential to preserving our democracy. The League of Women Voters wrote the book on voter education, literally.
Our “how to pick a candidate” information guides voters away from candidates’ hollow promises, distortion tactics and emotion appeals to examine candidates’ accessibility, clarity and voting record. Our candidate debate guidelines ensure fair, non-partisan candidate forums. Starting in 1976 through 1984, the League of Women Voters Education Fund (LWVEF) sponsored televised presidential debates featuring citizens’ rigorous and substantive questions. Thereafter the debates were taken over by national parties and new organizations with journalists questioning the candidates. Today, to ensure voters have access to nonpartisan candidate information, the League maintains the website VOTE411, which includes nonpartisan information on candidates and ballot issues for state and national elections.
"Impact on Issues" is the League’s guide to public policy positions. Over our 100-year history, League members have studied federal, state and local representative government, natural resources, social policy and international relations to come to consensus on advocacy positions that direct our grassroots efforts. The League believes taking action to influence government begins with educating ourselves and our fellow voters about the issues that confront our communities.
Voter service. Voter education. The League has been engaged in our "mighty political experiment" for 100 years.
Here’s to the next 100 years of the vital work of the League of Women Voters!
Nancy Maxson and Nancy Leifer are co-presidents of the League of Women Voters Missoula.