by Robin Barker
Our democratic system is under threat, and, once again, the League of Women Voters (LWV) stands ready in its defense. Founded in 1920, shortly before the ratification of the 19th Amendment winning women the right to vote, the League has pursued a vision to create a more perfect democracy.
The LWV has always been a nonpartisan, activist, grassroots organization. By nonpartisan, we mean we do not support or oppose any political party or any political candidate. By grassroots, we mean that our strength is in our membership: the local League is composed entirely of volunteers and has an active membership of over 200. By activist, we mean that we actively promote involvement in the public process and call for change guided by positions adopted by the local, state and national Leagues.
Citizens in Washington have worked hard to ensure that voting in this state is easy and elections are fair. More than 4.7 million residents of Washington are registered voters, out of roughly 6 million residents eligible to vote.
Whatcom County voter turnout in the August 8 primary election was over 48 percent, compared to a statewide return rate of about 40 percent. But, our local League doesn’t sit idle. Today, the League of Women Voters of Bellingham-Whatcom County (LWVBWC) pursues its core mission with a host of volunteers.
• Volunteers staffed registration and voter education tables at over 40 locations this past election season. In a new initiative, volunteers met with and registered WWU students at off-campus housing as they moved in for the fall semester.
• With the assistance of Bellingham Community Television (BTV) and other partners, volunteers organized and posted on our website 13 online primary and general election forums, so voters could hear candidates’ responses to carefully curated questions.
• After the election, LWVBWC will publish,“The Directory of Elected Officials and Public Agencies,” compiled by volunteers, so voters can continue to be active participants in the political process. The printed pamphlet is widely distributed and the directory is also available on the League’s website, https://lwvbellinghamwhatcom.org.
• A team of volunteers works to encourage civics education, especially in the schools. A new edition of the civics education textbook, “The State We’re In: Washington,” has recently been published by the LWV of Washington and is freely available online (https://www.oercommons.org/courseware/lesson/80327/overview).
But League activism doesn’t end there. Since its inception, the League has been committed to helping voters understand the issues well enough to be confident voters. Over the years, the League has developed a process of member-directed study and consensus on a wide variety of public policy issues to arrive at official League positions.
The League also came to realize that, while the 19th Amendment guaranteed that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged … on account of sex,” for many years Black, Asian and Indigenous women were denied the opportunity to exercise that right. Today, the League envisions a more inclusive democracy, where all Americans can see themselves represented in our government, and where social and economic justice is taken into account.
LWVBWC committees focus on several of the many important positions adopted by the League:
• Climate: LWVBWC has an active climate/water team. In 1998, the League adopted a position on deep water ports that supports the protection of the ecosystem at Cherry Point. Over the years, members testified at hearings, wrote hundreds of letters, participated in coalitions, and presented programs, culminating in landmark amendments to Whatcom County’s Comprehensive Plan to ban new fossil fuel projects. Currently, the climate team is addressing the problem of plastic in the environment by offering, for a donation, washable, reusable jute bags to replace plastic produce bags, at events around the county.
• Healthcare: The local LWVBWC healthcare team advocates for a universal healthcare system as the best way to ensure a basic level of quality care at an affordable cost. This position was recently adopted by the national League. The local team is working in coalition with other groups to make this possible at the state level. The team is also following the progress of the Universal Healthcare Work Group convened by Governor Jay Inslee.
• Housing: The local League board recently adopted housing as a focus area for the upcoming year. The national, state and local Leagues advocate for the human right to meet basic needs, including food, housing and healthcare. An enthusiastic team is gathering information and planning ways to initiate civil public discussion of the obstacles and solutions to the housing crisis.
• Racial equity/healthy democracy: The local League is fully committed to diversity, equity and inclusion. In June, the RE/HD (Racial Equality/Healthy Democracy) team organized a public event at Depot Market Square celebrating the customs and culture of Black, Indigenous and people of color in Whatcom County.
LWVBWC membership dues are shared with the League of Women Voters U.S. and LWV Washington. That support helps the state League lobby for legislation supporting major reforms that can’t easily be addressed locally, for example, money in politics. The League wants to reduce the influence of special interest money in politics, provide public financing for some campaigns, ensure transparency, restore citizen confidence, and prevent conflicts of interest.
At the national level, the League of Women Voters advocates in Congress for voting reform, including automatic voter registration, online voter registration, mail-in voting, and more. The League also empowers voters through Vote411 (vote411.org), a nonpartisan, “one-stop shop” for election information that voters need to cast a ballot in every election. Vote411.org is available in English and Spanish.
Registered voters are responsible for making informed decisions at the ballot box about issues and candidates. The League offers nonpartisan information and an opportunity for discussion and debate, and encourages, through advocacy, citizen participation in the public process.
Join us at https://lwvbellinghamwhatcom.org.
Robin Barker moved to Bellingham in 1980 to work for the Whatcom County Library System, retiring in 2012. She recently studied web design and development and now serves as webmaster for the Bellingham City Club and the League of Women Voters of Bellingham-Whatcom County. She is also the league’s president.