Making Democracy Work

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Message From Elizabeth Ralston

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A person who joins the League joins an organization that exists at all level of government + city, county, state, and national.

I just got back from attending the biennial Convention of the League of Women Voters of the United States. It was my first national convention even though I have been on the Board for almost ten years. It was a great experience to meet so many competent women from across the United States and learn about their Leagues, what they are doing, and how they are dealing with the challenges their Leagues face, which in many cases are similar to the ones this League faces.

The challenge of protecting every citizen's right to vote was one theme running though this convention. As you know, many states are passing onerous and restrictive voter id laws and pursuing other methods to suppress the vote. Wade Godwyn, a Texas-based NPR Correspondent, told us how these laws in Texas are impacting not only the intended targets, but women in general, since Texas' law requires that the name on the ID presented must agree exactly with the voter's name on the voter registration rolls. A Texas judge who had been voting for 40 years was prevented from voting after this law passed because her id used her maiden name as her middle name and her voter registration did not. Other tactics for voter suppression have included eliminating early voting and purging the voter rolls based on faulty data.

The National League has put extremely high priority on fighting voter suppression efforts by supporting the efforts of State Leagues, and, when called for, signing amicus briefs in lawsuits challenging the statutes.

All but two states in this country restrict the voting rights of felons, and this has resulted in voter suppression as well. In many states, complicated reinstatement provisions makes it difficult even for those committed low-level drug crimes to be able to vote. The convention adopted a resolution from the floor supporting voter rights for felons who are have been released from prison. This goes farther than California law, which requires a felon to have completed parole as well. It doesn't go as far as the states of Vermont and Maine, which don't restrict the voting rights of convicted felons at all.

The convention adopted a three-part program combining study and review of key, specific structures of American democracy:
1. A study of the process of amending the U.S. Constitution, including calling on a national convention
2. A review and possible update of the League position on Campaign Finance in light of recent US Supreme Court rulings, and in order to enhance member understanding of the new laws that are currently used to influence elections & erode protections against corruption in the political process. The League will review possible responses to counter them in the current environment of rapid change
3. A review of the Redistricting Process for the U.S. Congress, via the existing LWVUS redistricting task force, in order to develop action steps

The study of the amendments to the constitution is being done in part because one of the responses to recent Supreme Court decisions on campaign financing has been to suggest a constitutional amendment.

The National Convention also adopted by concurrence a position of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey on human trafficking.

Over the past two years, the national League has funded a Young Persons Task Force and a caucus on that task force was over-subscribed even though it started at 7:45 in the morning. This task force has produced a toolkit for recruiting younger members, which I hope our League can make use of. For now I am happy to say that I am one of the oldest members of the new Board; when I joined ten years ago I was one of the youngest.

Back at home in Los Angeles and California, there is no official voter suppression. Nonetheless, the results of this month's primaries are disheartening, with statewide turnout at around 20%. One of the speakers at National Convention this year traces the continued decline in voter participation to a growing disengagement of citizens from government + fuelled by decades-long anti-government rhetoric. Solving a problem requires the right diagnosis, and this one rings true. If it is, it means that the League needs a different story when talking about the importance of voting. I believe that if the League hopes to improve voter turnout, we are going to have to beyond bromides about how every vote counts. The League is an organization that believes in the political process and believes in public education, and believes in health care for all, and believes that government regulation is necessary to protect our environment. In other words, we believe in the positive role government can and should play; we need to include that in our conversation.

On the local level, the June 3 election is a poster child for the benefits of Instant Runoff Voting. The LAUSD School Board seat for District 1 has been vacant for over six months and will remain vacant for another two. With 20% turnout in the statewide primary, how many people do you think will vote in the runoff on August 12?

The League worked hard this election season to inform voters. We produced the County Easy Voter Guide and got nearly 100% participation in Smart Voter from County Candidates. We co-sponsored 4 candidate forums and provided moderators for two others. We can expect a hard fought race for County Supervisor in District 3, and perhaps a significant contest for Sheriff, and we hope to co-sponsor candidates televised candidates forums for both these races.

A new and exciting project for Voter Service has been the development of a Voting Basics Presentation geared towards newly naturalized citizens. Voter Service has been developing and testing a presentation for students in citizenship classes that are provided by Catholic Charities in partnership with the LAPL.

Youth Outreach has been renamed Youth Empowered Solutions. The YES Committee, ably led by Zhita Rea, Fran Lapides, and Ida Mae Windham produced a terrific forum this year for High School Students with a focus on service learning. Students from each high school came up with an outline of a community service project for their schools.

During the past year we've had seven brown bag lunches at the office with guest speakers talking and answering questions about current local issues + from homelessness to voter apathy to the politics of LAUSD. I look forward to equaling compelling talks in the coming year.

Over the past few months, members of the advocacy committees have been interviewing City Council members about issues related to our program + specifically carbon and reduction and climate change, instant runoff voting, and the budget and retirement benefits. One of our takeaways so far is that there seems to be siloing with regard to city services with environmental impact. For example, few Council Members seemed to be in any kind of communication with the Office of Sustainability that Mayor Garcetti has set up. Several Council Members told us that the city needs to take a more unified approach with respect to water policy noting that the Department of Water and Power and the Sanitation Department both bill water by usage.

With respect to the city's ongoing structural deficit, there seems to be a great deal more realism and less wishful thinking than was apparent five years ago when the great recession started. Perhaps this reflects the fact that several of our new Councilmembers came from the State Legislature and had been through even more traumatic budget cuts and that ongoing Council Members have realized that the problem isn't going to magically be solved by a growing economy.

As we go forward this year, I would like our League to direct new energy strengthening our organization by recruiting new members who can contribute time, skills, money, or connections, and who better represent the diversity of the city + in terms of geography, ethnicity, and age. The unique strength of the League is in its member volunteers, and we need to renew that strength as we approach the one-hundredth anniversary of the League in 2020.

Thank you all who have contributed to the League's work this year. I'm looking forward to a busy and productive League year in 2014-2015.

In League,

Elizabeth Ralston