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updated: 10/26/2010 4:35 PM

League of Women Voters still going strong after 90 years

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  • Candidates for DuPage County Board chairman  Democrat Carole Cheney and Republican Dan Cronin  participate in a candidate forum organized by the League of Women Voters in Glen Ellyn and Wheaton and the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce.

      Candidates for DuPage County Board chairman Democrat Carole Cheney and Republican Dan Cronin participate in a candidate forum organized by the League of Women Voters in Glen Ellyn and Wheaton and the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce.
    PAUL MICHNA | Staff Photographer

  • Audience members listen during a candidate forum organized by the League of Women Voters.

      Audience members listen during a candidate forum organized by the League of Women Voters.
    PAUL MICHNA | Staff Photographer

  • Missey Wilhelm, president of the League of Women Voters of Wheaton, makes introductions during a candidate forum last week at the Wheaton Community Center.

    Missey Wilhelm, president of the League of Women Voters of Wheaton, makes introductions during a candidate forum last week at the Wheaton Community Center.


Back in 1920, at a time when women were poised to win a constitutional amendment giving them the right to vote, the League of Women Voters was born in Chicago.

The suffragist struggle had lasted 72 years. Members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association wanted to be sure newly franchised women effectively used their vote.

Ninety years later, the women and men of the league still are registering voters, holding candidates nights, and speaking out on national, state and local issues.

"I think we're still considered one of the most valued and respected organizations," said Nancy Marcus, president of the League of Women Voters of Illinois.

But Marcus readily acknowledges the league, like many organizations that draw their primary membership from women, has felt the impact as more women continue to enter the work force full-time.

She said the state's 44 leagues represent about 3,000 members, most of them north of Interstate 80. At its peak during the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the state league probably had closer to 10,000 members, she said.

"It's going down a lot," she said. "We're really trying to encourage younger members to join."

Nationwide, the league has 170,000 members and financial supporters, said Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States.

"The league is strong in all 50 states and operating in over 800 communities," she said.

Membership has varied over the years, MacNamara said, but she agreed the group's challenge is to attract younger voters.

"We are definitely reaching out to younger members who are extremely comfortable with being online," she said.

By all accounts, the league is meeting with some success. The national and state leagues have Facebook and Twitter accounts, and some local leagues are using social media as well. League members reach into high schools to register 18-year-olds, help organize candidates nights and hold mock elections.

The Elmhurst League's membership of 75 has gone down a little in the past few years, but has attracted younger members because of its involvement in school issues and membership in the Cool Cities Commission, President Laura Kratz said.

"A lot of what we do can be very time-consuming, but it doesn't have to be," she said. "With women being in the work force, there just isn't time for everything else."

The Glen Ellyn and Wheaton leagues, the two largest of the five in DuPage County, each cite a membership of 104 from their own communities and nearby towns. Ginger Wheeler, president of the Glen Ellyn League, said that number is up from a few years ago.

"We have a pretty broad range of people. We have people in their 20s and we have people in their 70s," she said. "Fifteen percent of our members are men."

Still, Wheeler admitted membership is an ongoing challenge.

"As an organization, you have to have a committed core of people to reach out to others," she said. "You really have to ask people to join and they will."

Active in elections

Election season is a time of high activity for the leagues, which conduct voter registration drives and hold candidates nights, often in partnership with other organizations.

The Glen Ellyn League worked with the Wheaton League and the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce to organize two candidates nights for the Nov. 2 election, and worked with other DuPage County leagues in holding mock elections in 12 area high schools. Students voted on all the statewide races and their votes were tallied statewide.

"The kids were just totally excited about it," Wheeler said. "That really speaks to the mission of the League of Women Voters, which is to educate voters and teach them how to research candidates."

The national LWV Education Fund offers a website where voters can get information on registering to vote, locating polling places and finding out about the races on their local ballots.

The Illinois League website features education materials on the recall amendment for governor on the Nov. 2 ballot without taking a position on it, as well as information on candidate debates and evaluations of Cook County judges done by the Judicial Retention Commission.

Locally, the Naperville League has held forums and taken positions against two referendums on the local ballot to set term limits for Naperville City Council members and to replace at-large representation on the council with a mixture of at-large and district representation.

Jane Barnes, president of the Naperville league, said the position against term limits is based on previous stands the state and national leagues have taken against the issue. The support for at-large representation came from the local league's own study of the issue.

The Naperville group also partnered with the league of Downers Grove, Woodridge and Lisle to host a candidates fair in mid-October for local candidates running for the U.S. House, Illinois House, the DuPage County Board and the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

Mary Ellen Matthias, president of the Downers Grove, Woodridge and Lisle organization, said candidates liked the format that gave them an opportunity to talk individually with voters, but she estimated the fair drew only about 50 visitors.

"Not as good as we would have liked," she said.

Modern technology may work against the type of discussion the league promotes, Matthias said.

"I really believe one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century is to get people away from the television, computer and phone and get them talking to people," she said.

But leagues also are harnessing modern technology to spread candidate information. For instance, the two candidate forums held by the Wheaton and Glen Ellyn leagues and the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce last week were videotaped for local cable and live streamed on the web at the LVW-Glen Ellyn Web channel.

Staying nonpartisan

A nonpartisan organization, the league does not affiliate with a political party or endorse candidates in an election. But individual members are encouraged to be politically active, unless they hold the position of league president or voter service chairman.

"We encourage members to be active in the political party of their choice," Wheeler of the Glen Ellyn League said. "Even if you are extremely conservative or liberal, you're welcome."

Matthias sees the nonpartisanship as a strength of the league.

"I love it because it's a place where members are Democrats and Republicans and we can have civil discussions," she said.

Many league positions might be characterized as progressive, but Wheeler said the league commonly is criticized by both sides of the political spectrum. Leagues take a position only after study of an issue. Positions are arrived at by consensus, rather than by majority vote.

"When we have a position meeting, everyone in the room comes to consensus," Wheeler said. "Some of those meetings are contentious."

Wheeler said the Glen Ellyn League has just started a study of mental health issues in DuPage County. Two years ago, it did a study of the Civic Betterment Party, which nominates candidates for village offices in Glen Ellyn. The league urged the party to build a better website, operate more transparently and do more outreach in the community. The party took steps to incorporate that advice, Wheeler said.

Nationally over the years, the league successfully has supported measures that include aid for maternal and child-care programs, the passage of Social Security, putting more federal jobs under Civil Service, and making voter registration easier. The league long has endorsed a national health care plan, but supported the legislation passed under the Obama administration because it incorporated many of the league's goals for health care, MacNamara said.

When the league speaks on an issue, its position reflects grass-roots support, she said.

"When we speak, not only do we speak as real constituents, but we also know what we're talking about," MacNamara said. "We do not operate in sound bites."

Local leagues also may have an Observer Corps of members who attend local meetings to report back to league members on board actions and discussion. In some cases, observers end up serving on a board themselves. The Glen Ellyn League, which has one of the most active local Observer Corps, sends members to the Glen Ellyn village board, Milton Township, College of DuPage, and the Glen Ellyn Park District, Wheeler said.

"When people go to these board meetings and observe what's going on, it's amazing how public officials take notice," she said.

Glen Ellyn Village President Mark Pfefferman said the Glen Ellyn League helps keeps the community informed through its research, news releases and candidate forums.

"The contribution I think the league makes to Glen Ellyn is awareness," he said. "Whether members of the community agreed or disagreed with the league's position on issues, they always seem to appreciate the vetting of those issues that the league provides."

Once a league takes a position on an issue, it publicizes it, makes its study results open to the public and lobbies for legislation. Nonmembers also may be invited to participate in league studies, activities and meetings where issues are discussed. For instance, the Naperville league has a speaker tonight to discuss Illinois finances.

Of course, all this thoughtful discussion of issues requires work. That may be why some people seem intimidated by the idea of joining the league, Naperville's Barnes said.

They shouldn't be, she said.

"We're voters who want to have an intelligent base for making decisions," she said.