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President's Message
Volunteers Needed for League Advocacy at Legislature (Jean Aoki)
McElrath to Address Women's Committee (Suzanne Meisenzahl)
Voter Service (Jean Aoki)
Gambling (HCALG) Report (Grace Furukawa)
League of the Future is Online (Stephen Trussel)
Education Committee (Mary Anne Raywid)
Lunch 'n' Learn the Law
LWV Maui Co-Chair Attends UN Human Rights Council (Joshua Cooper)
Modern Look of League (Jason Stein)
Chapter Reports - Hawaii (Marianna Scheffer)
Chapter Reports - Honolulu (Piilani Kaopuiki)
Chapter Reports - Maui (Joshua Cooper)

Modern Look of League

Reprinted with permission from the Wisconsin State Journal, Wednesday, August 9, 2006

In a time of political blogs, big-money campaigns and partisan pundits, is there still a place for the League of Women Voters?

Leaders of the Wisconsin arm of the good-government group are betting that there is, looking to scatter some of the dust from their venerable but often overlooked institution.

They're opening new chapters, increasing their modest budget and joining a push for renewed ethics in state politics. They've even taken a stand against a controversial proposal that would constitutionally ban gay marriage and civil unions.

"We're professionalizing the league to a great extent," executive director Andrea Kaminski said of the group, which has seen its core of educated female volunteers cut in half in recent decades by social change that has resulted in more women pursuing professional careers.

"We're in a stage where we've started to ratchet up our spending and our (fundraising) so that in the long run we can do a lot more."

Political observers, however, said the League will probably never regain the influence it had decades ago, in part because of its own success in helping women find other outlets in society for their skills.

And some conservatives question whether the Wisconsin League's more active role in some hot-button issues might compromise its greatest asset: its reputation for principled nonpartisanship.

Tracking candidates

Partisan talk shows and blogs abound, even as television provides less coverage of politics, said Virginia Sapiro, a political scientist at UW-Madison. The need is as great as ever for groups like the League that promote democracy and citizenship over a single political viewpoint, Sapiro said.

"If democracy is going to remain vital, it means that people have to be well-plugged in to what's going on," Sapiro said. "The problem is, how do we make that interesting and sexy for people?"

Last week, the League and two other government watchdog groups unveiled a survey sent to every candidate for the Legislature and statewide office. The survey, by the League, Common Cause in Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, asked where candidates stand on ethics issues such as public financing of campaigns and a proposed merger of the state Ethics and Elections boards into a single board with greater powers to root out corruption.

Kaminski said it was the first time the League, which often does scattered surveys of candidates through its local chapters, has helped do a survey of all candidates for the Legislature. Kaminski said the effort couldn't have been handled by volunteers alone and reflected the work of paid staff and private grants that have swelled the League's modest annual budget by 80 percent to $180,000 since the last gubernatorial election in 2002.

"It gets the candidates to take a stand," she said of the survey.

Opposing marriage ban

The League took a controversial stand of its own recently, publicly opposing the gay marriage and civil unions ban. Kaminski and League president Melanie Ramey said the position was a natural extension of the longtime concern for civil rights in the League, which grew out of the women's suffragist movement.

Mike Prentiss, a spokesman for amendment supporter Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, questioned whether the League's opposition of the proposal might compromise its nonpartisan image with conservatives.

"It does sort of raise your eyebrows and make you go, Hmm,' " he said.

Ramey said the League is still guarding its independence by sticking to issues and avoiding endorsing candidates. She said she didn't think the stand would hurt the group's effectiveness.

Citizens' advocate

The Wisconsin League has added two local chapters since about 2005 for a total of 22, but that's still down from a one-time high of more than 30, and membership is also down from highs in past decades, Kaminski said.

Mordecai Lee, a government affairs professor at UW-Milwaukee and former Democratic state senator, said the group's good reputation with voters still had great value, even if the League has faded.

Ramey said the group's name recognition can hamper as well as help. The "Women Voters" tag in the League's name keeps many men from realizing they can be members, Ramey said. The organization's long history of helping organize candidate forums and getting citizens out to vote sometimes mean those efforts are taken for granted, she said.

Ramey and other League leaders want to change that by making the group a more active advocate for citizenship.

One more way the League is trying to do that is by taking part in a challenge of the federal license renewal of five Milwaukee TV stations because the League says they didn't provide enough broadcasting on state and local elections over public airwaves in 2004. Ramey wouldn't count out the idea of challenging future license renewals of Madison stations. Milwaukee television stations have disputed the claims by the League and other groups.

"We need to take some of the lessons that other businesses and organizations have learned," Ramey said. "We need to be keeping our name in front of people and our work in front of people."

The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin

History: Created in 1920, the Wisconsin League tries to improve government by getting information to voters, taking stands on select issues but avoiding endorsing candidates. The League is present in every state.

Members: The Wisconsin League has about 1,500 members in 22 local chapters around the state, including some 250 members in its Dane County chapter, and is open to both women and men. But membership is down from highs in past decades, when the League was a prime outlet for the talents of educated women and had more than 30 chapters.

Today: The state League's leadership says it wants to prove that this is not your mother's League. In coalition with two other good-government groups, the League is pushing ethics and elections reforms and is asking TV stations to better their elections coverage. The League is even taking a stand on the proposed gay marriage and civil unions ban, but that's ruffled the feathers of some conservatives.

Jason Stein

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