Group sticks to its principles in educating an increasingly obstinate electorate
When the founding fathers drafted the Constitution, voting privileges were giving to a very select few -- men who were property owners. Over the years, the right to vote has been extended; but it wasn't until 1920 through the 19th Amendment, that women were given the right to vote.
Women's suffrage, however, had started well before the 20th Century. In the late 1840s and 1850s, women like Susan B. Anthony were calling for reforms that would address the rights of many America's residents. Some of the reforms included abolishing slavery and temperance.
Women like Anthony were looking for a more sweeping reform. They were looking to give the ballots to the mothers--that's right, women voting. It was a long challenge, but by 1920, women were finally granted the same right as men in exercising the franchise.
It is women who looked to make sure the right was treated as a privilege and an awesome responsibility. So an organization was born to help ensure women, as well as all voters, were informed when they made their decision at the polls. That organization is the League of Women Voters. Tulsa, serving as a progressive city in the early 1900s followed suit and established its own chapter in 1925.
Since its inception, the goal and mission has changed very little. Chapter co-president Mary Jo Neal said there has always been a need to help inform voters, and that need may be greater now than ever.
When voters are educated, they will use their vote wisely, she said, adding that voters will participate more.
Neal recounted a recent voter registration drive where she encountered a young woman who had been registered to vote for about four years. She said the woman told her how long she had been registered but that she has never voted.
Neal asked why, and the answer was because she simply didn't know who to vote for and what candidates believed because of the bickering and other focuses of campaigns.
Charged with such a big tasks, how does the league educate the populous?
At the local level, the league hosts candidate forums, produces a voter guide and publishes a directory of all government officials in the metropolitan area. The Tulsa league's current voter guide can be found at their Web site, www.lwvtulsa.org.
Each effort takes a different amount of work and sometimes the effort doesn't result in a product. Recently, Neal said the Tulsa league tried to put together a candidate forum for the district attorney's election. It had been a tough decision since the race was just between Republicans.
As a rule, the league is non-partisan; however, in this case, they felt a candidate forum would provide an opportunity for Republican voters, as well as those who would not be able to vote, a chance to learn about both candidates, she said.
Voters who were illegible to vote in the recent district attorney's election were those who are registered as Democrats, Independents or some other party. Oklahoma has closed primaries, which mean that the primary election is open only to registered voters of that party.
But the league didn't get to host the forum--things just couldn't be coordinated between the candidates and league volunteers, Neal explained. That is only part of the problem this organization is having lately in getting needed information to the public.
Holding to Standards
The League of Women Voters' forums have been limited to local and state elections only since the late 1980s. Co-president Marjorie Swofford said the League of Women Voters used to sponsor the presidential debate in order to provide a non-partisan environment in which candidates would be asked challenging questions.
In 1988, the national organization officially withdrew its sponsorship because it felt the demands from campaign organizations would "perpetrate a fraud on the American voters," with debates on the campaign trail that had answers with no substance, spontaneity or even addressed tough issues, according to Wikipedia.org.
The national league wrote: "The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public."
As for what makes a league forum non-partisan is simple. Rule one, all candidates running in a race should be notified of the forum, according to the Tulsa league's " Nitty-Gritty of Non-Partisan Forums" worksheet. Also, it is important for organizers to make timely contact with candidates and provide them with the forum's ground rules and the text of the first questions.
Even more, forum organizers have to develop questions that are important to the community, the worksheet said. Most forums provide an opportunity for audience members to submit questions.
Tulsa's League of Women voters reaches out to other community organizations who might want to hold candidate forums. Swofford and Neal said the league will offer workshops and guides on how to develop a non-partisan forum.
Voter education isn't just holding forums and providing written guides on candidates and elections. Neal said the Tulsa league teaches a course called the "ABCs of Citizenship." Through the program, participants learn about voting, voter participation and advocacy. The course is a four-hour, start-to-finish explanation of what it means to be a participant in self-government.
Just recently, the league received a grant from the Tulsa Women's Foundation that helps them work with women who may have been incarcerated or are in a low-income demographic, she said. Through the grant, the league offers the class and its participants a membership to the league for a year.
It is a great opportunity for the women, she said, because without the scholarship they may not be able to be members of the league because of the dues. Although the league's dues are $50 a year, to some of the women participating, that is money not available to spend on a membership.
With the recent ABC program, the Tulsa's league has become aware of an issue facing women who have been incarcerated. Many of them are not eligible to vote. Under Oklahoma law, an individual convicted of a felony does not receive the right to vote until the original sentence time is met, Neal said.
For instance, if a woman receives a sentence for 25 years but serves a portion of that sentence time, participates in various program and is paroled, she doesn't receive the right to vote until that 25 years is met, Neal explained.
"Say she has served 15 years, she can't vote for another 10," she said.
For league members, this seemed a little unfair and has served as a policy issue for them to study. Tulsa league member Nancy Dodson and Neal explained that the league takes on issues to bring upon change.
It is a slow process, Neal explained, since the league votes on whether or they will study an issue; then they study the topic and discuss it and even work out what they would like to see happen. Before any policy stance is provided to the public, members vote on it.
The issue on incarcerated women who are integrating back into society was approved by the state league to study, Neal and Dodson said.
It is important to the women to study because most time women released from prison generally retain custody of their children and become the primary caregiver. By empowering the women, they are helping the children.
With past issues, the league has made progressive, positive change. Dodson said the group studied the issues revolving around corrections and helped develop the community sentencing concept. The group was able to get the Oklahoma Community Sentencing Act approved in the 1990s.
Tulsa's league has literally changed the face of government in Tulsa. Swofford, Neal and Dobson said it was the league that studied the issue of changing the city's charter and creating a new form of government of the city.
According to league history documents, it was an issue they first studied and acted on in the 1950s; were able to see a successful charter revision pass in 1989. In their office on 32nd Avenue, the league proudly displays an editorial cartoon depicting the change in government type.
In 1989, the city did away with commissioners who represented specific areas like police and fire, and created the current city council structure.
Not every position that the league takes is met with cheers, or even what people want to hear. Last year, the league offered a stance on the recall election of two candidates--Jim Mautino and Chris Medlock. Neal said the league believes in recalls and feel they are important part of the democratic process. More so, voters have the right to remove their elected officials from office.
But the league did not support the recall of Medlock and Mautino, she said. The league's position to oppose the recall was simply because they felt that it did not meet the state standards for a recall and was a frivolous recall. That the two men were being recalled because they had done what was expected of them--ask questions.
When the league offered its opinion on the recall, the group was labeled partisan because both men are Republicans, Neal said. There was even criticism from within the league membership.
Even with the sharp words from opposing forces, Neal said there were still those that thanked the league for the opinion.
When the suffrage movement first began in the 1840s and 1850s, there were just about 100 women involved. Today, the League of Women Voters has about 150,000 members. Tulsa's chapter has 157 members, Neal said, pointing out that the membership has grown over last year when they had 108 members.
In spite of recent, unwarranted negative publicity, it is a testament to the vitality of the organization. Swofford said the league has been focused on voter education activities and its policy issues that they have not done a lot of recruitment.
Dodson said in the earlier years of the league more women were able to participate in the league and other volunteer opportunities because many women did not have to work. Today, she continued, many women work and are trying to raise families and that doesn't always leave time for organizations like the league.
The face of the league member has also changed since the organization was founded in 1920. Members have more facial hair. In the 1970s, the League of Women Voters changed its membership requirements and began to allow men to be members. Neal said the Tulsa league has had numerous male members.
More than 80 years later, the Tulsa league still has a role in Tulsa's political tapestry. More information on the League of Women Voters can be found at www.lwv.org, or www.lwvok.org.
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