League of Women Voters celebrates centennial, right to vote
Wisconsin plays historical role in both
By Eileen Persike
The constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote was ratified 100 years ago last week, when Tennessee became the final state needed to reach the three-fourths threshold. More than a year earlier, however, Wisconsin became one of the first states to vote in favor of ratifying the 19th amendment.
There is another centennial celebration taking place this year with Wisconsin ties. The non-partisan League of Women Voters (LWV) was officially founded in Chicago Feb. 14, 1920, by Wisconsin native Carrie Chapman Catt, born in Ripon. It was formed by suffragists of the National American Woman Suffrage Association as a “mighty political experiment” designed to help women carry out their new responsibilities as voters, according to the LWV website.
It continues that mission in an expanded sense today.
“After women did get the right to vote, we continued to stay in business because we felt that it was extremely important that women and men of all races and religions were able to vote and that wasn’t the case,” League of Women Voters of the Northwoods (LWVNOW) President Jane Trotter said. “Half of the mandate is to have a participatory and informed electorate. We want everyone to participate in the process. The other half of it is [for voters] to feel they can inform themselves.”
The Northwoods chapter began about six years ago. Emphasizing the non-partisan nature of the League, Trotter encourages everyone to visit the myvote.wi.gov website or the League’s vote411.org to become an informed voter. The vote411 site, she said, provides the opportunity for anyone running for elected office – school board, county board, town board – to go on the site and answer questions so voters can get to know the candidates. Getting the candidates to respond is not always easy.
“It takes a while to build momentum,” Trotter said. “We’re getting there. We’ve not been in existence 10 years and people are starting to trust us.”
The National League of Women Voters held presidential candidate forums in the 1960s and 70s, prior to news outlets hosting debates. LWVNOW has moderated candidate forums in the past and Trotter said they would like to hold more.
The League instituted a poll-watching program in 2012 where volunteers visit polling sites to check for things such as an entrance ramp for wheelchair access and whether voting machines are usable by all.
“What we ought to be doing is making it as easy as possible for people to vote and what we seem to be doing is making it more restrictive,” Trotter said. “I know there are all sorts of reasons, but I’ve been very clear that everyone who has the right to vote should be able to vote, but we don’t want to be giving it to someone who doesn’t have it.”
Right now the LWVNOW is focusing on absentee ballots, another part of the voter education process. The myvote.wi.gov website allows voters to, among other things, track their absentee ballot, something Trotter said is “Pretty important now when people aren’t trusting the system.”
Acknowledging the amount of time and effort on the part of suffragists to gain the right to vote, Trotter said there is a lesson there as well.
“I think for all of our freedoms we need to remember our history, we need to remember how hard our foremothers worked to get these rights for us and we need to continue to keep ourselves informed and involved so that we and all of our brothers and sisters don’t lose those rights.”
The League of Women Voters of the Northwoods encompasses Florence, Forest, Langlade, Lincoln, Oneid and Vilas counties. For more information, visit lwvnow.org.