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From the 19th Amendment to the 21st Century

Michael Davis Photo

The League of Women Voters (LWV), an organization founded in 1920 to call attention to issues pertinent to women, children and families, may not have obvious appeal to the 25-and-younger crowd. But members of the Syracuse Metro chapter of the LWV took their nonpartisan agenda, which includes educating the greater community on policy issues and political choice, to the Syracuse University campus last month as part of a program to educate new voters.

Young or old, male or female, LWV is committed to the formation of informed voters. Camillus resident Joan Johnson, co-president with Rae Rohfeld of the Syracuse Metro chapter, has been part of this mission for 25 years. And while she marvels at how technology has expanded voter access to information on political candidates and the issues, she is troubled by the seemingly endless focus on personal tidbits and sound bytes. As such, the need for organizations such as LWV may be more crucial now then ever before.

“Today, our role is to continue to offer issue-driven programs, helping all voters make more informed decisions,” says Johnson, a mother of two grown children and grandmother of three.

According to the organization’s Web site, the LWV has chapters in all 50 states; the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Hong Kong. Johnson says membership in the Syracuse Metro chapter is just more than 100.

To her role with LWV, Johnson brings a diverse life history. An elementary school teacher, she left teaching when her children were born. Later, she worked on the staff of the town supervisor for the town of Onondaga and for state Assemblywoman Joan Christensen.

Johnson says she was inspired by her opportunities to work closely with local politicians. But she was also discouraged by the time they had to spend focused on things other than the issues that mattered to their constituents. The league, she says, was a chance to experience the rewards of the political process without the baggage.

“I just have always had an interest in issues and government,” Johnson says. “What I like about the league is that it’s not about the politics. You’re working for the issues.”

The months leading up to a general election—this year, Tuesday, Nov. 4—are particularly busy for the LWV and its members. Members meet with various community groups encompassing many local demographics. This year’s schedule included the SU program as well as a community forum at Le Moyne College and another—co-sponsored with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—for the group Parents for Public Schools. In addition, individual members are often called upon to address community organizations or church groups.

“We get a lot of questions about the voting process; some we can answer and some we direct to the Board of Elections,” Johnson says. “The phone rings constantly this time of year.”

Additionally, the LWV prepares a comprehensive voter guide, published in the Syracuse New Times, which includes information on local, state and national races. The league has also begun educating people on new voting technology, which will be fully in place in New York state next year. Voters with physical disabilities will use the new technology this year.

Even after the election, Johnson and her fellow leaguers will be plenty busy. An annual legislative breakfast will be held in early December, and efforts to explore possibilities for government consolidation will resume.

“The league is very interested in consolidation of municipal resources,” Johnson explains. ”Our structure of government, with all our towns and villages, was brought over from Europe; it’s basically an 18th-century structure of government. I think it’s time to see if we can find more efficient ways of providing municipal services.”

As the information age has continued to evolve, Johnson has become a keen observer of its effects on local voters. While she is glad that people have more avenues in which to learn about their government, she bemoans the amount of misinformation that gets taken as truth or contributes to people’s confusion about the candidates and political process.

“When I talk to people, some of them are very confused; they don’t know what to believe,” Johnson says. “Information is easier to get, but maybe we hear too much.”

Johnson says the historical milestones of this year’s general election—from Senator Hillary Clinton’s primary battles to the Democratic nomination of Barack Obama to the surprising emergence of a relatively unknown governor from Alaska—are not lost on the league. An organization so rooted in social progress can only applaud the degree of change the presidential candidates and their running mates represent.

But Johnson says the excitement has been tempered by the manner in which some press outlets have chosen to cover the campaigns. The
depth of the historical significance and the importance of the issues, she fears, are not being conveyed to voting public.

“Take Sarah Palin.” Johnson offers.“ All the things we’ve learned about her are things that have no place in deciding if she would make a good vice president.”

Yet Johnson says the league has embraced these new technologies in order to reach young people. The local Web site, LWVsyr.org, is perhaps the best place to learn about the chapter’s many activities. “We also have a PSA (public service announcement) on YouTube,” Johnson notes. “We are focusing on the future.”

Whatever methods they choose, Johnson says voters have a responsibility to make informed choices in the voting booth, and LWV remains committed to helping them do just that. “We stress the importance of doing your homework on the issues,” Johnson says. “Base your vote on information. Democracy doesn’t come without effort on the people’s part.”                                       

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