by Brenden Dougherty

The October surprise for the 2012 election cycle turned out not to be a terrorist attack or an extramarital affair, but rather a devastating super-storm that flooded portions of New York City and cut out power to millions of customers.  Many wondered if the damage to the city would cripple efforts to get voters to the polls on Election Day.  However, the League of Women Voters of New York City refused to surrender to the destruction.

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The League of Women Voters of the City of New York is an organization whose goal is to inform citizens about election matters and encourage citizens to vote.  On November 6, 2012, the organization pursued this mission with incredible vigor by assisting those voters affected by Hurricane Sandy.  Members set up a telephone hotline days before the election to answer questions from voters about whether their polling places would be open despite the damage from the floodwaters.  On the day prior to the election, league members answered more than 200 calls, and when the big day finally came, the League of Women Voters kept their phone hotline open from 8 in the morning until 9 at night.  Indeed, the organization was intent on ensuring that every resident in the city knew where to vote and how to get there, with particular emphasis on those without access to the Internet and those who were unable to withstand the heavy call volume coming into the Department of Elections.  As the League’s President Ashton Stewart stated on Election Day, “Our people power is minimal, but we’ve been keeping our four phone lines engaged all day, just letting people know where their nearest poll site is.”  Once the votes had been cast, the league’s work continued, with members traveling to polling locations to report the numbers to the Associated Press.

The League of Women Voters of New York City proved vital to 2012 voting in two significant ways.  Its members were able help clear confusion regarding polling locations in the wake of one of the worst storms ever to hit the Northeast.  However, this organization is also significant in that it is labeled a non-partisan group involved in the electoral process.  The non-partisan nature of this league is noteworthy considering that in the majority of states, the electoral process is run by partisan officials.  As Richard Hasen notes in his book The Voting Wars, “the United States is unique among mature democracies in using local, partisan officials to run national elections, and the results have not been pretty.”  Indeed, the role of partisan officials overseeing the electoral process came into bright focus immediately following the 2000 presidential election, when Republican Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris halted the recount of ballots and certified Republican candidate George W. Bush the winner of Florida’s electoral votes.  The issue of partisanship came up during this election cycle as well, when Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted attempted to curtail early voting hours and make it harder to cast legal provisional ballots, a move seen by many as an attempt to limit the number of ballots cast for President Obama in the crucial swing state.  The perception that partisan officials are attempting to influence the outcome of elections decreases the faith the American people have in the impartiality of the democratic process.  Ohio State University Professor of Law Daniel Tokaji points out that our current system encompasses a clear conflict of interest, seeing as “you’ve got an umpire who’s a betting stake in the game.”  And as Richard Hasen notes in The Voting Wars, “so long as partisans administer our elections, suspicions of their motives are inevitable.”

How do we solve the problems associated with having partisan election officials?  Giving organizations such as the League of Women Voters more power in the electoral process may be a step in the right direction.  In order to truly reform the system, however, we must ensure that organizations such as the League of Women Voters are truly nonpartisan.  Some contend the League of Women Voters is a liberal leaning group, considering the positions they advocate for.  This is a fair criticism, and if we are to give such organizations more power in running and certifying elections, it will be imperative that we prevent such groups from advocating liberal or conservative agendas.  Otherwise, the change will be for naught and the electoral process will still be seen as a partisan event.  Therefore, a potential reformation plan may include giving organizations such as the League of Women Voters more responsibility and funds, while limiting their ability to advocate for particular positions.  It may also be wise to require members of the league to sign a pledge, vowing to remain neutral on the issues throughout the election cycle.  If the League of Women Voters were to become truly nonpartisan in this way, then officials could form a league in each state to set rules on early voting and provisional ballots and to certify election results.  The League of Women Voters organization has made it clear that their goal is to “expand participation and give a voice to all Americans, ” without supporting particular candidates.  If further reforms are made to ensure the league does not advocate liberal positions, then this organization may be the perfect nonpartisan vehicle to run future elections.  Indeed, it is time for the United States to join the modern democracies of the world and seize electoral control from partisan officials who may be tempted to suppress certain American voices.

Permalink: http://electls.blogs.wm.edu/2013/01/01/nyc-league-of-women-voters-sandy/

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