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Ohioan who serves as US League of Women Voters co-CEO says voting is the baseline for democracy

This story was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal on June 7, 2024. 

Twenty years ago, Kelly McFarland Stratman was among the Ohioans working on reform to the state’s redistricting process as a member of the League of Women Voters. Now she’s the co-CEO of the national group.

In a way, things haven’t changed for her.

Since leaving her kindergarten teaching job, McFarland Stratman has stood as executive director of the Ohio chapter and made her way up to chain to her current role: chief of staff and interim co-CEO of the League of Women Voters of the United States.

The 104-year-old organization has held a reputation of non-partisanship and focus on voter education that appealed to McFarland Stratman then, and continues to be at the center of her drive with the organization.

“The mission of the league could not be more critical or more needed,” she told the Capital Journal in an interview amid a return visit to the state that started it all for her. “Our democracy is a gift and it is something that is fragile, and it requires care and attention.”

McFarland Stratman was in Ohio to update local chapters on the work of the national group. While she heads the national arm of the organization, the co-leader recognizes that the storied history of the advocacy group wouldn’t be present without the state-level and community-level factions.

“We are really run by our volunteers, who are giving their time and their talent and their energy and their passion to the important work that has to be done,” she said.

The divisiveness that is present in the country may seem to make it difficult to hold fast to the nonpartisanship the league strives for, but working with every league chapter and encouraging comprehensive conversations among all the groups before the national organization makes a “measured opinion” is one of the guardrails McFarland Stratman says keeps the LWV out of the depths of divisiveness.

“I feel like I learn everyday from our leaders across the country,” she said.

The idea that the league was borne out of the women’s suffrage movement means the vitality of women in the democratic process certainly drives the organization as well.

“We believe in the power of women to create a more perfect democracy,” McFarland Stratman said. “The way that women work, having their voice at the table is just critically important; it is not at enough tables, not enough voices certainly when they are at the table.”

Ohio’s chapters of the League of Women Voters have been active in voting rights campaigns, in election protection at polling locations on election day and, of course, in keeping tabs on the redistricting process that overtook the last two years in the state.

That process saw six Ohio Statehouse map proposals, only one of which was deemed constitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court, and two congressional maps, neither of which passed court muster.

During that process, the LWV of Ohio participated in lawsuits along with public hearings and outcry against the process that was then led by elected officials as part of the Ohio Redistricting Commission.

Issues like redistricting, whether or not voters should be required to bring IDs to polling locations and votes on ballot initiatives are all watched by the LWV, and McFarland Stratman said the changing democratic landscape involves adaptation.

“Each state has to fight their own fight in terms of preserving those really foundational rights,” the co-CEO said. “It means we are fighting 50 battles, or, I’ll say 51, because we are still fighting for D.C. statehood.”

But the fact that the LWV is still, after 80 years, counting Washington, D.C., statehood as one of their fervent goals, shows McFarland Stratman that holding firm to original values and having faith in the motivations that keep the league going can only help them, and the country, ride out the wave of unpredictability that is American politics.

“Whole generations have been impacted by (a lack of statehood in D.C.), but we have to keep fighting because it is the right thing to do,” she said.

In an organization with more than a century of existence, fighting for longterm goals isn’t unfamiliar to the LWV. The current political environment, where McFarland Stratman said “some of the things that we have … come to expect or assume, maybe are things we can’t expect or assume anymore,” means pushing forward with things like voter education and engagement seems all the more important.

Reassuring voters about the power of the vote remains a big issue, and McFarland Stratman said voting is “the baseline for folks to enter into the process,” but shouldn’t be the end of the line.

“This should not be that people go off to office and that’s the end of the story, we have to stay engaged in the process even after the election,” she said.

For the LWV, that involves not only creating resources to help voters know where to vote and how to vote, but also encouraging voters to pay attention to those issues and races that may not be at the top of the headlines.

“We tend to put all of the attention at the top of the ticket, but the lower-ticket races or some of the lower-ticket issues even – the school bonds and other things – those are things that affect people’s lives daily, maybe even more so than some of the other issues,” McFarland Stratman said.

And while redistricting in Ohio may have disenfranchised voters to the idea of representation in elections, the potential of a citizen-led process should be encouraging and galvanizing for residents, according to McFarland Stratman.

“Whoever’s in power, we want to make sure that citizens are at the table to make sure the redistricting process happens,” she said.

The U.S. Census Bureau is once again starting the process of collecting data for 2030, when the redistricting process will begin anew across the country, which means the league has eyes toward 2030, and every legal case on redistricting that comes in the meantime.

Creating a new system to bring the power further into voters’ hands is a big part of the league’s plans, as they recently launched a digital campaign to abolish the Electoral College.

“We know that’s a longterm goal, but again, that’s a systemic problem that’s got to be addressed so that we can really get to the democracy we want to have for everyone,” McFarland Stratman said.

As another election approaches, Ohio residents can focus on shorter-term goals, like researching candidates, considering being a poll worker on Election Day, and teaching a new generation about the right to vote by bringing them to the polls.

“I think it is critically important that people do use their power, use their voice and vote,” McFarland Stratman said. “The fight continues.”