In this edition of our "Austin Orgs You Should Know" series, we highlight the League of Women Voters Austin Area, a nonprofit organization whose mission is "Empowering voters. Defending democracy.
“I’m just such a believer that our democracy works best if everybody is involved. And that we can come to a better state of our government if everybody has a voice in it.”
These are the words of Joyce LeBombard, outgoing president of the League of Women Voters Austin Area.
Do you agree with Joyce? Do you love nothing more in the world than your “I Voted” sticker? Are you tired of reading headline after headline about our democracy crumbling and feel ready to take some action?
Then the League of Women Voters is just the group for you! Originally founded in the 1920s to empower and educate women who had just won the right to vote, the League of Women Voters has since expanded to encourage informed and active participation in government for all.
Under their mission of “empowering voters and defending democracy,” the League of Women Voters works to register voters, inform voters of upcoming elections and candidates (in a nonpartisan way), and advocate for policies that strengthen our democratic system. It’s a national nonprofit organization with local leagues all over the country, run entirely by volunteers like Joyce and Moriah Powers, the new president of the LWV Austin Area.
“I got involved because there are a number of different issues that I’m passionate about, but for me, when I put that together, it all starts with voting,” Moriah said, in an interview last week with The Austin Common. “I always say the reason that I got involved was because I wanted to have a reach that was greater than my one vote.”
PS – And despite its name, the League of Women Voters is open to all… not just women 🙂
So what exactly does the League of Women Voters do?
Create the Voters Guides
If you’ve ever found yourself desperately looking up info about obscure candidates as you’re waiting in line to vote, then you’re familiar with the League of Women Voters’ work. Each election, the LWV creates nonpartisan guides featuring a bio, as well as a series of questions and answers, for every candidate running in the election – from the president to City Council members.
The local League of Women Voters Austin Area is responsible for providing all the info on the local candidates, coming up with good questions, sending them out to candidates, and then gathering their responses. If bond measures are also on the ballot, then they work to “translate that into common sense language that an everyday voter… can understand,” explained Joyce.
The guides are then printed (in English and Spanish) and distributed all throughout the city (including in the Austin Chronicle and at all of Austin’s libraries). The info is also published online at Vote411.org.
***Action Item – The Voter Guides are created entirely by a team of hard-working volunteers. If you want to join them, simply become a League of Women Voters member and then join the Voter Services committee. Perfect for people who like research, are interested in learning more about local candidates, and have good communication skills!
Register and educate High School Students with First Vote!
“We believe that not only should we register high school students, we actually want to educate them as well, about the importance of voting,” explained Joyce. “With the idea that if we can get people engaged early on, then they will become lifetime voters.”
That’s the idea behind the First Vote program, in which LWV volunteers visit local high schools, register voters, and lead interactive presentations to teach students how to become informed voters… and understand why doing so is important.
***Action Item – Join the League and become a member of the Voter Services committee. Once it’s safe to do so again, you could help lead these presentations at local schools, as well as help bring the program online and help connect local teachers to the initiative.
Pinot & Policy
Open-to-the-public events covering topics/ issues that are important to the local community. This year, the bulk of these conversations will focus around COVID-19 recovery, the environment, and criminal justice. Earlier this month the LWV hosted their first virtual Pinot & Policy event, focusing on “Evictions In The Time Of Coronavirus.”
***Action Item – These events are open to members and non members alike. Just attend! Follow the LWV Austin Area on Facebook for updates on upcoming events.
Equity and Inclusion Book Club
Each month, the LWV invites members of the public to join their Equity and Inclusion Book Club for a group discussion. In May, the club read “How To Be An Antiracist.”
***Action Item – Attend an upcoming book club meeting. Just follow the the LWV Austin Area on Facebook for upcoming events. If this is a topic you’re particularly interested in, you can also become a league member and join the Equity and Inclusion group, which is focused on making the LWV’s internal policies more equitable as well.
A quick democracy update. What’s going on with COVID-19 and elections?
You’ve probably seen the headlines about the havoc that a global pandemic is having on our election system. That’s why the LWV is dedicating a lot of its time and energy this year on addressing the following issues:
In normal years, the LWV deploys volunteers all over town to register voters in-person at events. Because of COVID-19, that has not been possible, so instead, the LWV has been moving its campaign online and encouraging people to visit register2vote.org. On the site, you can fill out a form, which will be sent to you in the mail, for you to then mail in to the proper government entity to officially register. (Not true online voter registration, but it’s the closest thing we’ve got.)
Despite their efforts to pivot, Joyce explained, “In person is always better for us, we think, because then we know for sure that it’s going to get turned in and get processed.”
Vote By Mail
With concerns that voting in person could be a threat to public health, or discourage those at high risk of death or hospitalization from COVID-19 from participating, there has been a lot of talk lately about expanding vote-by-mail access.
The LWV is keeping a close eye on this conversation, even joining in on one of the lawsuits to expand vote-by-mail in Texas.
This is still an issue that’s going back and forth in the courts, but in the meantime, the only reasons you can vote by mail in Texas are if you’re:
65 or older
Sick or have a disability
Going to be out of town on Election Day
If you meet one of these qualifications, you’re able to apply for a mail-in ballot, wait to receive it in the mail, fill it out, and then mail it back in before Election Day. (Important thing to note here – the ballot must be actually returned by Election Day. It can’t just be postmarked by that date.)
According to Joyce, Texas is one of only 16 states that doesn’t have no-excuse vote-by-mail (meaning that you need a justification to ask for one.)
***Action Item – Keep up-to-date with the LWV’s vote-by-mail advocacy by following them on Facebook. They’re posting regular updates on lawsuits, educational webinars, etc.
The other big impact that COVID-19 is having on our election system is that’s it’s severely limiting our local pool of election workers. These are the people who do things like check your ID and give you your “I Voted” sticker at the polling location. They’re vital to making the whole election system work and they’re often made up of older Austinites who are most at risk from COVID-19, which, according to Joyce, means that a lot less people are signing up to volunteer this year.
To try and address this, the LWV is leading a big push and recruitment effort to encourage younger and less high-risk Austinites to sign up. On Friday, May 29th at noon they’re hosting a webinar with the Leaders of the Texas Association of Election Administrators (TAEA) to provide expert advice to League leaders and others about the recruitment process.
***Action Item – If you’re able, consider signing up to become a Election Worker in Travis County. You can learn more here.
More ways to get involved
Bottom line – if you’re passionate about building up our democracy and making it more inclusive and open to all, the League of Women Voters could be a good outlet for you. Annual membership dues are $60 a person and allow you to sign up for any of the League’s many committees. No matter what your skill set, the LWV has volunteer opportunities for you, including fundraising, digital outreach, and grant writing.
And if you don’t time right now to start volunteering, another way to make the LWV proud is simply remembering to vote, reading the Voters Guide, and encouraging your friends to do the same.