This story was originally published by The City Journals.
Many voters have paged through a booklet of candidates and chances are, it came from the League of Women Voters. Perhaps a great number of voters also signed up to vote with the help of one of the League’s volunteers.
“The League of Women Voters has been around for more than 100 years; we came into being around women's suffrage when the founders of the League of Women Voters fought hard to get women the right to vote,” said Shauna Bona, Salt Lake County’s chapter president. “We take the rights and the need of all people to vote very seriously. Our biggest issue is access to the vote. We want to educate voters, register voters and motivate voters. Our mission is really about empowering voters and defending democracy.”
While those early suffragists paved the way for women today to vote, Bona said that their mission isn’t over.
“We look at issues and study them, and it can be a local study or a state study or a national study. Then we lay the information out for our members, and we discuss it in small groups until we reach consensus on the issues, if this is a good issue for us to support. We do have positions around having a clean, healthy environment to live in and to raise children and definitely we think women should be in the Constitution with the Equal Rights Amendment. When we do take a stance, we really work hard to help educate the public and our lawmakers in hopes of really doing things that are right by the people,” Bona said.
She also pointed out that while their main message is to empower voters to make a better democracy, the League isn’t restricted to women members.
“We’ve had men in the League for decades. In fact, we were going to change our name to not be the League of Women Voters, but the problem was that if we would have let go of the name of League of Women Voters, that we would have lost our history,” Bona said. “We have members of every sexual orientation, of every background. What’s important is that we have this history to our nonpartisan commitment of voting rights.”
Among the issues the local chapter has reviewed are voting by mail, health care, census and immigration.
“Our members hold an annual meeting, and they say, for example, ‘Hey, we think that we should study abortion.’ So, we did a study recently about abortion laws and it wasn't taking a stand particularly, but it was a study just to understand the abortion laws in Utah. Sometimes those studies are to educate our members and then, they come up with their own personal opinions on it. Sometimes the study is a consensus study, when we're really trying to come up with a position. We're cautious and we're careful. We really want to make sure that we're not making rash positions, but have our positions based on study,” she said.
While more than 300 local members gather annually, smaller groups study the issues monthly. “We also have our committees, such as the voting committee, and those committees might meet weekly because we have so much work we do. We work to register voters; they go out to educate voters. In the past, we have taught high schoolers about the importance of voters and register them; we have gone to naturalization ceremonies and helped them register as new citizens,” Bona said.
Currently, they’re updating Vote411 (vote411.org), a personalized voting website, which after entering a residential address, voters can explore their candidates’ information, learn about upcoming elections and how to register and find out polling locations. The site covers local, state and national election information.
For example, currently the website states that voters need to be registered by Oct. 28 for the next general election on Nov. 8.
“We have groups of people, men and women, all over the country, including here in Salt Lake, formulating questions for our candidates for every race and every election,” she said. “It’s one of the only places that candidates can answer these questions. We do not edit what they write. It’s completely nonpartisan. There's no ‘gotcha’ questions. Every candidate has the opportunity in their own words to answer questions. You can pick a question and put the candidates’ views side by side to compare their answers. They can put in YouTube videos so it’s educating voters and it’s completely fair to the candidates. It’s really just to inform the voters.”
The League of Women Voters also sponsors debates or candidate forums “so that voters can hear from the candidates,” Bona added.
As part of League, some members called Observer Corps attend local city meetings.
“Our goal is that we have a League of Women Voters observer at every city council meeting, at the racial equity and policing commission meeting and at the planning meetings just to hear what's going on and to take notes and report back to our members what is happening because local government is incredibly important,” she said. “Oftentimes, people are busy in their lives and things get overlooked so our Observer Corps is doing that work for us. We’ve done a lot of great things like finding out ranked choice voting and about the gravel pit in the canyon and letting people know when the council was going to be discussing issues and encouraging people to contact their council members. Our Observer Corps believes in transparency and accessible government, so we go and find out what they’re doing and report back so our members can follow their own conscience and reach out to their leaders and let them know what they think.”
Many issues are shared on their website and in their weekly email briefings.
Education is an issue “what our members are passionate about,” Bona said. “We cover every single school board race and make sure that we’ve researched it and have good questions to ask the candidate. We cover the school board races and make sure all citizens are educated about the issues, particularly in K-12 education in Utah. There are serious issues related to inclusion, issues related to all kinds of things in education. We’re focusing on educating to make sure people know who the different candidates are on the local school boards, what’s motivating them, why they’re running and what their intentions are. That is incredibly important right now. We’re not saying, vote for this candidate or that candidate. We believe in empowering voters. We ask questions. We have candidates answer those questions, and the voters read those and how they decide who is the best to represent them and their options. It doesn’t matter to us how they vote. It’s not our business. We just want them to be educated and to vote.”
She said voting is critical.
“Our entire system is predicated on an educated populace exercising the right to vote. We pick our leaders, our leaders don’t pick the voters, and the better educated and inspired and energized our voting and voting populace is, the better a country our democratic republic will be,” she said.
Lori Jones, a former longtime educator, said educated voting is critical to elections, including the local school board.
“Voters need to review candidates’ platforms, then they can make educated decisions about who wants to support schools and make them better,” she said.
While her longtime passion has been education, Jones, who recently joined the League of Women Voters, said that she has concerns about redistricting and environmental issues, both of which Bona said are hot topics right now.
“I joined the League because I read that they filed a lawsuit against the legislature about gerrymandering of the congressional districts, which I was furious about, and I’m also really interested in trying to do things to make sure that the Great Salt Lake doesn’t die because that would be a huge disaster for our children. I'm an advocate for children and a lot of people blow off the Great Salt Lake because they don’t realize everything that it does. I just thought, ‘OK, I don't have a right to complain unless I volunteer’ so I’m taking a look to learn more about these issues,” she said.
After attending a couple meetings, Jones plans to get more involved.
“I like how the League gets people involved in nonpartisan politics and how they also take an active role in what’s going on in the state. The great thing about it is you don’t have to run for office to have to see if you can have an impact on something and you can get involved in as little or as much as you want. They’ve got a climate group that’s looking at problems with water in Utah. They have a legislative group that goes to the legislative sessions to find out what they’re doing, and they have an observer group who are trained to be an observer at city meetings and report back what's going on,” she said.
Bona involvement with the League started after the 2016 election.
“I wanted to get involved with educating voters and helping voters understand the importance of going to the ballot in an informed way,” she said. “I saw what the League was doing and that they were empowering voters and registering people to vote, not asking them how they were going to vote, but just making sure that they were informed citizens who did vote. To me, that felt like a way of making the world a better place.”
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