When it comes to civic and community engagement, some people need to be “volun-told” what to do.
Not so for Whitney Oxendahl.
She calls herself a community organizer but from the outside appears more like an expert-freelance-volunteer-superwoman.
“I like to see a need and then fill it,” she said.
Oxendahl, 36, of Fargo, has volunteered to promote local foods, eliminate library book late fees and write policy manuals for nonprofits, but her latest efforts are all about voting and democracy.
On behalf of the League of Women Voters of North Dakota, she put together a first-ever statewide voter guide for the June primary and upcoming November general election.
The guide can be found on VOTE411.org, a nationwide "one-stop-shop" for nonpartisan political information about candidates and elections .
Users put in their address, and the site creates a ballot featuring only the races they’ll see when they vote. They can even email the information to themselves and bring it with them when they vote as a reminder, she said.
Mary C. Tintes, board vice president for the state league and a board member of the league’s Red River Valley chapter, said the online tool and Oxendahl’s efforts have upped their game.
“She took the ball and ran with it and developed everything that we had hoped would occur,” Tintes said.
The voter guide earned the League of Women Voters of North Dakota a nomination in June for an innovation award from the League of Women Voters of the United States.
“We’re happy to see it recognized,” said Barbara Headrick, the state league’s board president.
The League of Women Voters of North Dakota, run entirely by volunteers, has always focused on holding candidate forums and making voter guides strictly dedicated to ballot measures or initiatives — never on candidates themselves.
When a small amount of grant funding came their way, the league tasked Oxendahl with finding a way to boost its membership and visibility.
She chose to take on the VOTE411 voter guide on behalf of the state league, putting her computer organization skills to work.
She started with a candidate list from the North Dakota Secretary of State’s office, uploaded it to the VOTE411 site and reached out by email to candidates with questions that included “Why are you the best candidate for this position?” and “Are there any steps you would take to build collaboration, rather than polarization, between parties?”
Many candidates didn’t submit email addresses when they filed, so Oxendahl mailed out more than 1,600 letters to them, inviting them to fill out their portion of the guide. Phone call reminders went out, as well.
Candidate responses were published as they were answered and weren’t edited, except for space considerations.
In all, it meant tracking down more than 2,000 candidates and issues for the North Dakota primary and more than 700 for the general election.
That meant federal, city, county and school board candidates statewide, and “everything down to the soil conservation district and ballot measures,” Oxendahl said.
The League also did voter outreach by posting on Facebook groups throughout the state, posting on Reddit and city sub-Reddit accounts, and placing online ads in small local newspapers to reach rural voters.
Oxendahl also assisted with voter guides for the League of Women Voters of Minnesota and multiple other states.
Her work has since caught the attention of the National League of Women Voters of the United States, which hired her to become a VOTE411 coordinator.
Tintes said she joined the state league when she was 19, nearly 50 years ago, wanting to make a difference in the community, and Oxendahl has the same youthful excitement and energy.
“We just connected. … We're on opposite ends of the age spectrum, but frankly, she reminded me a lot of me when I was young,” Tintes said.
Oxendahl is a 2014 graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead with a degree in Sustainability and emphasis in Environmental Science.
She's a married mom with three small kids who still finds time for community work, whether it’s defending democracy, cheerleading local foods or writing policy.
“I'm usually in the background doing things other people might think of as boring,” she said.
In 2015, she co-founded the Red River Farmers Market, and in 2020, as part of Cass Clay Food Partners, she developed an online resource detailing which pesticides and herbicides had been sprayed on public lands so people could find safe places to plant community gardens.
During the peak of the pandemic, while serving on the Fargo Public Library Board, she recommended getting rid of late fees, which passed unanimously at the next meeting.
In 2021, she wrote part of the business plan for the new Fargo Moorhead Science Museum that’s in the works.
Her next focus is the 2023 North Dakota legislative session.
For the state league, she’ll compile a guide for the public about how a bill goes through the legislature, how committees work and how to give effective testimony.
“That really resonates with me right now … empowering North Dakotans with information,” she said.
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VOTE411.org did more than just help me register to vote. It also gave me the information I needed to vote for the very first time this Election Day.
Voter guides, particularly the candidate information they provide, are essential tools for state and local elections that every American deserves access to.
EDITORIAL NOTE: This blog post was written by our intern, Anne Richard