Commentary: League of women voters

Apr 5, 2013

The night before last, I drove to Suttons Bay in Leelanau County, just a few miles north of the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

I went there to get inspired, and I was. Not by the magnificent scenery along Grand Traverse Bay, though it is still lovely country even in this season of competing rain, snow and mud.

I went there because the League of Women Voters just formed their own Leelanau County chapter – the twenty-first chapter in Michigan – and had invited me to speak.

What I’ve found out over the last few weeks is that even in our information overload society, a dismayingly large number of people have no idea what the league is or what it does. Some think they are the little old ladies who check your name off the voter list at the polls. In fact, the League of Women voter s is, more than any group I can think of, everything good about Democracy in action.

They include men as well as women, and are highly informed people with two main purposes. One is voter information. They do everything they can to make sure that citizens have the information they need to make smart choices.

But they also take very clear positions on issues. The League is strictly non-partisan. They never endorse candidates nor recommend that anybody vote against a candidate, no matter what.

However, they know what they stand for – clean, open and responsive government at home, world peace, and protection of both the public and the environment through policies promoting clean air, water and unpolluted land.

Nor are these just platitudes for the league’s hundred and fifty thousand members. The League of Women Voters does all it can to lobby lawmakers to adopt sensible policies.

And they aren’t afraid of controversy.

I first became really aware of them twenty-five years ago, when they stopped sponsoring an institution they’d been closely associated with: the Presidential debates.

Why? Because, the League’s president at the time said, they weren’t really debates, but quote, “charades devoid of substance, spontaneity, and answers to tough questions.”

That’s pretty tough, but also pretty accurate. Two things struck me about the Leelanau league. Though they live in one of the state’s most affluent areas, the members don’t fit the up north stereotype of being completely removed from downstate problems.

I met two couples who frequently make pilgrimages to Detroit’s Eastern Market, and spend a day in the city. They feel for Detroit’s agony, and wish they had some answers.

But beyond that, there was a fair amount of frustration with the gridlock in Lansing. With the gerrymandered districts and the seemingly irrational behavior of the state legislature over issues like Medicaid, and with Congress over just about everything.

The League members want to do something to make this a better country and a better world, and had no idea how to do so when their traditional institutions aren’t responsive.

I told them I thought I knew some of why things had gotten off track, but I didn’t know any quick and easy fixes. But what I was really thinking was that if people like these ever give up on fixing the system, democracy is in more trouble than we ever knew. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.