Voting and vigilance
The League of Women Voters of Butte County lends local voters a nonpartisan hand
Organizing a forum for political candidates at any level is no small undertaking. Navigating the scheduling concerns of multiple people vying for public office during campaign season to bring them together on one stage is a feat in itself, and ensuring the discourse between those candidates—and the attendant public—remains cordial and productive can be equally challenging.
It’s such a monumental task that Rose Kelley, who is organizing such forums for the nonpartisan League of Women Voters (LWV) of Butte County this election cycle, recently codified her process into 20 steps accounting for venue, volunteer, technical and other considerations. A note at the bottom of the list reads “Repeat 16 times.”
“It’s a full-time job for the next few months,” said Kelley, who, like other LWV members, is a volunteer.
The LWV kicks off the first of eight events comprising 17 races next Thursday, Sept. 29, with five candidates vying for three seats on the Durham Unified School District meeting at Durham Memorial Hall.
The forums—invaluable resources for the public and the press—continue through Oct. 24, when candidates for Paradise’s irrigation districts, school district and park and recreation district meet at Paradise Town Hall. Between those events, the league will host similar forums for races ranging from Biggs City Council (Oct. 4) to U.S. Representative for District 1 (Oct. 6). The Chico and Oroville city council forums in particular promise some fireworks, with 11 candidates participating in each race.
The local LWV also will put on four pro-and-con sessions analyzing ballot measures. Year-round, the group does regular voter outreach, registration and education at local high schools, colleges and public events. It also partners with the County Clerk’s Office to stock local post offices with voter registration forms. Additionally, the group sends watchdogs to public meetings throughout the county to ensure elected bodies do not violate the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s open-meetings law that guarantees public participation and transparency.
Meanwhile, the affiliated national LWV maintains a website called Voter’s Edge (votersedge.org) with information about measures and candidates.
The League of Women Voters was formed in 1920, the same year the 19th Amendment was ratified granting women the right to vote. The local chapter was formed in 1966, and has been dedicated to nonpartisanship since inception.
“The League of Women Voters does not support or endorse any political candidate or party, and that’s core to our mission,” said Margaret Swick, president of the LWV of Butte County, during an interview with her and Kelley. “We encourage civic engagement and for citizens to be active in politics, but don’t take positions with parties or candidates.
“I find it refreshing, and a real safe haven for us to do important political work without the rancor,” Swick said of maintaining nonpartisanship. “We don’t wear our personal politics on our sleeve. I sit on a board [of directors] table with 15 people and couldn’t tell you their politics for the most part, or their religion. We leave each other that personal space, but we all believe deeply in voting and civic engagement.”
The league sometimes takes stances on specific issues, but only on rare occasions and when most of its members are in agreement: “It is a political organization,” Swick said, “so we do study some issues and, once we reach consensus, we’ll advocate on that issue. So we’re slow, very thoughtful, and rather out-of-step [with other political groups] in that way.”
Swick said she’d admired the LWV since she was a kid and observed “these dedicated, white-haired women who were very involved and speaking to important matters in our society, so I thought, ‘I want to grow up and be one of them.’” She joined the LWV in the mid-2000s, noting the group isn’t solely made up of older women today, and in fact welcomes anyone who’s interested—male and female—over 16 years old.
Kelley joined the group after her husband, Dave, made an unsuccessful bid for Chico City Council in 2012: “I thought, ‘Now what do I do?’ I spent all this time mapping out precincts, identifying likely voters and all kinds of research. Then I got a phone call from the [LWV] search committee, and it seemed like a good match.”
In addition to directing the forums, Kelley also oversees the Brown Act watchdogs, and said several local governmental bodies have infringed on the law—or come close to it—in recent years.
“We’ve had to stand up at meetings and remind people about the Brown Act,” Swick said, “but most of the time, they don’t even realize they’re doing anything wrong and we can get things back on track with a phone call after the meeting.”
This firm but fair philosophy relates to how the group handles forums, as well, Swick explained.
“Candidates know they have a safe haven with the league,” she said. “We’re not going to challenge their politics or hit them with ‘gotcha’ questions and personal attacks.
“We’re not setting out to embarrass people; we just want to make sure things are done right. We believe in public service, and we believe in transparency and openness for the sake of voters.”