The League of Women Voters get out the vote and census march at Pasadena City Hall on Friday, February 14, 2020 in Pasadena, Calif. The march was held on the 100th Anniversary of their founding. Photo Courtesy of The League of Women Voters of the US
By Lindsey Potter
Nonprofit Sector News
February 3, 2021
If it seemed like the League of Women Voters (LWV), which turns 101 years old on Feb. 14, 2021, was more active or just more visible in 2020 than before, it wasn’t just a hunch.
LWV has branched out in recent years to work on immigration, environment, and healthcare reform issue, and just the combined national budgets of the LWV and its Education Fund total more than $12 million. (This does not include state or local budgets.) The national office shows 34 employees on its website.
But the organization’s heart is still with voter registration, voter access, the US Census and Congressional redistricting, and fighting voter suppression. So 2020 turned out to be a very busy year, and would have been even without the COVID-19 pandemic.
The national LWV’s Senior Director of Mission Impact, Jeanette Senecal, said that the organization’s primary goal always has been protecting and educating voters.
“The issues that we focus on have changed over the years, but the fundamental goal of ensuring that our democracy is equitable and inclusive has long been the goal,” Senecal said. “Our mission is defending democracy and empowering voters. And that remains constant across all of the work that we’re doing.”
According to LWV’s website, its members are working in all 50 states and in more than 700 communities within them. If that isn’t daunting enough, state and local Leagues have been challenged during the pandemic with registering and informing voters through a virtual or social distanced format. LWV was still able to register 250,000, which is also its usual annual number of registrations.
The “nature of the work” was the same as in past years but it was the execution where things differed, Senecal said. “And our leagues really were able to step up and make the pivot and learn these new skills and implement them successfully at the local level.” The LWV national organization offered bi-weekly training videos to help members learn how to conduct the League’s activities in virtual formats.
In Virginia, Deb Wake, president of LWV of Virginia, said that her organization utilized online forums and debates to educate voters and a program through local high schools to register new voters.
A law that took effect in July set aside school time in Virginia to register high school students to vote, Wake said. However, she said, Virginia’s motor vehicles division has been closed, and students typically use identification from the DMV to vote, so there a “bit of an access issue right now with that.”
Susan Simpson, president of LWV of Wyoming, said that in Wyoming voter registration is not allowed by third parties. So those leagues have to find different ways to register voters.
“What you can do instead is people can register to vote on election day. And we are a closed primary state. And so people will come in on Election Day, primary election day, and get their ballot and look at it and say ’the person I want to vote for is not on my ballot.’ And there can be two reasons for that,” Simpson said. “One is that they don’t live in the district where the candidate is running to represent. And the other reason is that the candidate belongs to a party that the voter does not belong to. And so people can change their registration to be able to vote for the candidate they wish to vote for. And there have been several efforts through the years to take away the right to change your affiliation on election day.”
This year in Wyoming, Simpson said her organization used VOTE411.org more than in past years to get voters’ questions answered about the people running for different levels of office. (VOTE411 was started by the League of Women Voters Education Fund [LWVEF] in 2006 to provide all election related information.)
“And so that was anxiety producing because of it just being a bigger production than we’d done before,” Simpson said. “And so we were learning things as we went and so that made it more stressful as well as COVID making it stressful.”
The national LWV’s Secal said that last year, more people came to the VOTE411 platform than ever before.
Sarah Courtney, the national LWV’s communications and digital strategy senior director, said that this year the organization translated the entire site into Spanish.
“This is the first time we had translated the entire resource, so that voters had access to the rules, the upcoming elections. What is the process for participating in absentee voting? Who does qualify and can use absentee voting in your state? Because these rules are different across states, and even within states, sometimes the rules are different,” Courtney said. “And so, you know, having this information available in English and Spanish for the first time was really a critical component to our work this year, because…with COVID and the rules changing so much, we wanted to make sure that information was as accessible as possible. And so providing in language support was really a fundamental goal of ours in 2020.”
In March, when LWV started realizing the complications of the 2020 election, state LWV organizations started focusing on ensuring that both early and absentee voting were as accessible as possible.
“That there was actually a noticing cure process because there wasn’t in many states,” Senecal said. “And so we were suing the state government to force to have a noticing care process so that voters rights were protected and so COVID, because people were using these systems, and we were expecting that they were using these systems at…significantly higher rates than in past years. And who had access to these systems was significantly expanded over past years because of COVID. You know the litigation was all the more important right now, and was all the more critical in this moment in time because of COVID.”
Wake said that past litigation set Virginia on the right path for a pandemic election. “The session right before we got locked down…We got a raft of voting rights as passed. We have, we got 45 days of early voting. No excuse absentee voting.”
In Wyoming, Secretary of State Ed Buchanan sent absentee voter application forms to all registered voters in the state.
“And that was a wonderful thing,” Simpson said. “And that’s an example of a change because of COVID. And so we had a lot more people voting absentee this year, and we had good turnout this year. And I would hope that that will continue even when COVID is no longer an issue.”
Senecal said that the organization had planned on putting a large effort into the 2020 election year, even before the pandemic was sweeping the globe.
“We had planned a campaign called Women Power the Vote, both as the voters who turn out to vote, and as the women behind the scenes that are making the election process work….And so we had already initiated this campaign, and had plans to have the largest efforts in many ways, but it ended up going beyond our original expectations,” Senecal explained. “In part because of COVID, and definitely the litigation portfolio was directly impacted by COVID. You know the litigation was all the more important right now, and was all the more critical in this moment in time because of COVID.”
Wake said that important legal action by the LWV of Virginia took place on the very last day of voter registration. “The cable was cut that allowed people to register online,” Virginia LWV president Wake said. “And so we were able to litigate and get that extended by two days, and that enabled 24,000 more people to register to vote…in the November election. So we were very proud of that.”
The 2020 election year proved to be a challenging one for LWV to continue its organizational mission. To educate voters how to vote by mail or absentee, the LWV approached each voter as if they were brand new.
“For the first time this year, even experienced voters were like first time voters, because they were using a new method,” Senecal said. “So we really approached this year like every voter was a first-time voter because people needed to learn new processes, learn about how do they even find out if their ballot was getting counted and if there was the cure process.”
LWV is set up to focus on main goals but allow state and local leagues autonomy in order to advocate for additional issues in their areas.
“The membership actually votes every two years on what the organization-wide priorities are going to be,” Senecal said. “And at our 2020 convention, our membership voted to have the campaign for making democracy work as our foundational kind of organizing issues that we’d be working on. Which included election administration reform issues, redistricting, money in politics, voter access and participation, the national popular vote compact.”
Wake said that the Virginia league prioritized redistricting this past year and is now shifting focus to campaign finance.
Though 2020 forced the League of Women Voters to be more active than ever before, it also allowed the organization to understand better than ever what election processes need change.
Senecal said, “2020 has provided a really interesting opportunity for us to really look at some of these election administration reforms to dig in a little bit more because there’s a lot more data because more people used some of these mechanisms to see which of these actually help us create that more equitable and inclusive democracy that we can focus on major reforms.”