When the National League of Women Voters began in 1920, none of its founding members had ever cast a vote in a U.S. election. It would be six months before women won the right to vote and the 19th Amendment was ratified as the law of the land.
“It was in anticipation of all these women getting the right to vote, and they wanted them to be educated on that right to vote,” says Lynn Staggs, outgoing president of the League of Women Voters of Metropolitan Tulsa, adding from there, the mission expanded to civics education, raising awareness on issues and advocating for changes in government.
This year, Tulsa’s league of the nonpartisan nonprofit organization celebrates 100 years of encouraging informed and active participation in government and influencing public policy through education and advocacy, and leaders within the organization say its mission is as important as ever.
“Our unifying purpose is to empower voters and defend democracy,” says incoming president Jenni Gray. “We don’t care what party you are (or no party), whether you’re a woman or man or nonbinary, you’re never too young or too old. If you care about democracy, getting people to the polls, or educating the electorate, the league has a place for you.”
In 2020, Oklahoma had the lowest youth voter turnout in the region and of any state for which data has been released by the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement.
Around that same time, Gray began looking for ways to connect with other like-minded individuals. She’s passionate about voting rights, elections and democracy.
“In that search, it sort of led me to the League of Women Voters,” Gray says. “I’m extremely passionate about registering voters and educating voters. And I feel that the league puts a lot of effort and work into providing factual, accurate, nonpartisan information to voters so they can make decisions based on truth rather than disinformation.”
The low youth voter turnout is a major focus for Gray and others in the organization. Last year, they held a statewide campaign called “Grab Your Future By the Ballot” in an effort to get younger voters to the polls.
“That’s something we’re definitely keeping an eye on,” Gray says of youth participation. “And honestly, one of my priorities as incoming president this year, I want to really focus on targeting younger people, because those are the people who aren’t showing up.”
Staggs, president of the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma, says, “I feel like people have forgotten — particularly for women — how hard women and other marginalized populations fought to get the right to vote. And I think as you get kind of further and further away from that history, people take voting almost more like a thing they have to do. It’s like, ‘Oh, do I have time to do this today?’ Or ‘What else do I need to do?’ They don’t make it a priority.”
Ladies of the League
Growing membership is one focus that will carry from Staggs’ tenure to Gray’s. The Tulsa league has fewer members today than it did when it started 100 years ago, Staggs says.
“I think a lot of that just has to do with women joining the workforce,” she says. “You just don’t have these housewives at home that have time to call people to remind them to vote.”
Still, the organization counts more than 100 Tulsans as members today, and it’s the largest league in Oklahoma, Staggs adds. Members can support the organization by donating money, volunteering at events or joining the board.
“Our board and committees meet once a month to plan, organize and implement work that empowers voters,” Gray says. “We register voters, hold candidate forums, host panels, develop an annual voter guide and more.”
Research is key
While the league champions voting, it also conducts studies that are relevant to voters and has done so since its inception. In the 1930s, the league conducted a study on working conditions at industrial firms.
“They called 90 industrial firms,” Staggs says. “(It was a) very detailed study on working conditions and wages. The result was to lead a campaign for minimum wage in Oklahoma. Some of these things are still around and resonate with us.”
Gray says the most recent study done at the state level involved criminal justice reform.
“That’s been a major priority over the past two years, and it just completed and was voted on and adopted at our last statewide meeting,” she says.
Some of the things they focused on in the study included: pretrial procedures; bail and bonds; sentencing; health and welfare while incarcerated; the impact on families; transition programs and reentry; parole; fines, fees and funding; and expungement.
“Now that’s a document we can hand out at tabling events, or we can contact our legislators and promote these policies that we as a league have put a lot of work into studying and interviewing to develop these positions,” Gray says, later adding: “You can’t avoid the fact that there’s discrimination woven into the criminal justice system. We think we should promote policies to fight against that actively.”
Since the beginning of the national league, procedure has been important. Before advocating for anything, a no-cost study is conducted by volunteers.
“The study leads to position statements, which are then used as a basis for advocacy,” Staggs says. “Our positions tend to be broad so they can be used to advocate for a wide range of areas on that topic. We can advocate based on our local position statements, as well as those at the state and national level.”
In the 1920s, the Tulsa league advocated against illegal voting and for centralized voter registration, which was put in place, according to Staggs’ research.
By the late 1930s, membership had grown to more than 300 women. They also started running 5-minute messages on a topical issue that played on KVOO.
Also in the 1930s, the members studied the use of a Juvenile Court System, which is still used today.
A decade later, they were asking for changes within the Tulsa City-County Library system, including after World War II pushing for a contemporary education of the world by distributing United Nations reports, hosting film viewings and a speaker series.
They also advocated for a limit of two terms for the governor in the 1960s. At this point, Staggs says, the Tulsa League opposed the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, because, she says, at the time they believed “it was a threat to protective laws for women who worked in the labor force.”
By the 1970s, they flipped that position and started to support the ERA.
In the 1980s, the Tulsa chapter changed its official name from the Tulsa County League of Women Voters to the League of Women Voters of Metropolitan Tulsa to expand its reach to the whole metropolitan area. The 1990s brought a focus on clean water and recycling stormwater management and then gun control and health care, Staggs says.
What happens in 2024
Next year will be a big one for Tulsa. Not only is it a presidential election year, but a new mayor also will be voted into office.
A few things the league is known for are its candidate forums, like for mayor and school board, and voter guides, says Andrea Pemberton, vice president of the Tulsa league’s board.
Forums allow people to learn about the candidates and issues, while the voting guides lay it all out in an easy-to-read and understandable way.
The candidate forums are done in a specific manner that allows for impartiality, Staggs says.
“We have a very precise procedure we follow to be sure each candidate has the same amount of time to speak, they get time to introduce themselves, they get time to answer questions that are directed to them,” she adds.
They also plan to partner with other organizations like Tulsa’s Young Professionals and the Tulsa Press Club, among other possible partners, Pemberton says. Any organization interested in joining this effort can email [email protected] to learn more.
The group is “working on creating a framework that allows all of us to amplify the impact that we have in terms of voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts,” Pemberton says. “And also making sure that voters are educated and informed before they go off to the polls.”
She says that in some ways, the league remaining as a nonpartisan organization that’s dedicated to making sure voters are educated has become even more important. “In the day of high political rhetoric, polarization — having this space that is definitely valued and seen as a long-standing tradition of creating that space for people to get together and have dialogue,” she adds.
How to get involved
If someone is interested in getting involved, including joining a committee, the first thing to do is visit lwvtulsa.org, Gray says.
Every year for the past several years, the Tulsa chapter hosts Madam President, which is a large fundraiser, but also serves as a way to recognize 10 female leaders in the community each spring.
“We enjoy hosting that every year and raising and recognizing women who are fantastic leaders in our community. That’s another great way that the league showcases leaders in democracy,” Pemberton says.
What You Can Do
The Latest from the League
To celebrate 100 years, the League is hosting a nationwide Day of Action, with hundreds of events around the country celebrating how ‘Women Power the Vote.’
The League of Women Voters of Oklahoma recently helped secure a big victory for voters in their state by reaching an agreement with the State Election Board and state agencies ensuring compliance with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.
As we reflect on the many things we are thankful for this year, I hope you will join me in sending the Oklahoma League a thank you for a job well done in bringing their state into compliance with the National Voter Registration Act!