A League of their own for things political

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Barbara Ruben
Barbara Sanders (left) and Barbara Ditzler of the Montgomery County chapter of the League of Women Voters work on the organization’s Voters’ Guide. Five chapters of the League serve the Washington, D.C. area, and the Montgomery County chapter is one of the largest in the country.
Photo by Barbara Ruben

As the presidential, congressional and local elections churn toward their final weeks, League of Women Voters members are in high gear educating voters about the candidates and issues, as well as the minutiae of voting itself, from locating polling places to learning how to place an early ballot.

But those in the League of Women Voters won’t step back and take it easy once Nov. 6 has come and gone, and a less political year looms on the horizon. The hundreds of League members in five chapters around the Washington area will turn their attention to researching and taking positions on local issues, from air pollution to library funding.

They then produce reports on the subjects, which are available to members, the general public, and legislators.

While the League of Women Voters takes positions on issues, it never endorses candidates. That’s something that drew Fairfax County League president Helen Kelly to the group.

“I decided I wanted to join a non-partisan organization. I’m an independent, and I did not want to join any organization that was perceived as too far to the right or too far to the left,” she said.

Getting out the vote

The 200-member Fairfax chapter is working to get as many people registered to vote as possible, canvassing water parks, grocery stores and local festivals for eligible voters who have not yet registered.

While Virginia has a new voter ID law, there are many ways to meet its requirements, and Kelly said she thinks few people will face any difficulty casting their ballots.

Registered voters will be mailed cards that can be used for identification. In addition to driver’s licenses and other government-issued ID, voters can use a utility bill with their name and address, a government check, or even a concealed handgun permit.

Across the Potomac, the Montgomery County chapter of the League is one of the largest in the country, with more than 400 members, including many men. Except for a part-time staff person, they all work on a volunteer basis.

“I attribute our [large] numbers to being in the DC area. We’re full of policy wonks,” said Barbara Sanders, 62, who works with the Montgomery County chapter on voter services issues on both the state and county levels.

Sanders is a case in point. She retired from a reference position with the U.S. Information Agency, in which she explained the U.S. presidential election process to foreign audiences every four years. She relied on the League for information for her presentations.

Began with women’s suffrage

While the national League also has both male and female members, it started in 1920 on heels of the women’s suffrage movement.

“If women had the right to vote, they had to know what they were voting for,” said Elaine Apter, co-president of the League’s Montgomery County chapter. “So it was really educating women to the issues in politics, and we’re still involved with that to this day.

In the process, the League had an impact on women running for and winning electoral office. “Especially in the 1960s and ‘70s, we were a training ground for women in politics,” Apter said.

“Many women running for office, especially for school boards and county and city councils, were League members because they got a taste for government, they knew the issues that were involved. They were educated on the issues. So, many of them were leaders.”

Apter, 73, joined the League after moving to California and finding there were 32 ballot issues in the next election there. The League helped her sort through them all so she could become a more informed voter.

“Every time I move, the first thing I do is make sure there’s a League of Women Voters,” she said. “It’s just a learning situation. It’s like continuing education.”

The Montgomery and Fairfax chapters produce annual Voters’ Guides, geared to county voters, for both the primary and general elections in election years. Candidates for all races are invited to submit short answers to a number of questions about their positions on important issues. Ballot questions are also described, and the issues are explained in detail.

Since 2004, the Montgomery County Voters’ Guide has been inserted into the county editions of the Beacon.

The Fairfax Guide will appear in the Oct. 26 issue of the Fairfax County Times.

Join a League near you

The Montgomery County League will hold a reception for new and prospective members on Saturday, Oct. 21 from 3 to 5 p.m. in a member’s Rockville home. For more information, email trihib@verizon.net.

Here are contacts to learn more about the League of Women Voters’ chapters in the area: