For decades, the League of Women Voters played a vital but largely practical role in American politics: tending to the information needs of voters by hosting debates and conducting candidate surveys. While it wouldn’t endorse specific politicians, it quietly supported progressive causes.

This story also appeared in ProPublica

The group was known for clipboards, not confrontation; for being respected, not reviled.

But those quiet days are now over, a casualty of the volatile political climate of the last few years and the league’s goal of being relevant to a new generation.

In 2018, the league’s CEO was arrested, along with hundreds of other protesters, for crowding a Senate office building to demand lawmakers reject Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative accused of sexual harassment.

Two years later, the league dissolved its chapter in Nevada after the state president penned an op-ed in July 2020 accusing the Democrats of hypocrisy for opposing gerrymandering in red states while “harassing” the league in Nevada over its activism on the issue.

And two days after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, the league’s board of directors called then-President Donald Trump a “tyrannical despot” and blamed him for inciting the violence and for threatening democracy. The league demanded his removal from office “via any legal means.”

As a result, the league is calling attention to itself and drawing criticism in ways that are extraordinary for the once-staid group. Republicans are increasingly pushing back hard against the league, casting it as a collection of angry leftists rather than friendly do-gooders.

Candidates push away league debates

And with more right-leaning candidates snubbing the league, voters are less likely to hear directly from those candidates in unscripted and unfiltered forums where their views can receive greater visibility and scrutiny. That pushback sidelines the league at a time when misinformation has become a significant force in elections at every level.

“The League of Women Voters, while that sounds like a nice organization, they don’t do a lot of nice work,” Catalina Lauf, a Republican candidate for Congress in Illinois, said in a video posted in May on Instagram, explaining her reasoning for refusing to participate in a league-sponsored debate.

The league, she claimed, “peddles Marxist ideology” and is “anti-American.” In an interview with ProPublica, Lauf cited the league’s support for the rights of transgender student athletes as one reason she is suspicous of the group. She also claimed the league has endorsed the defunding of police departments, though that is inaccurate. The league has, however, taken stands in favor of sweeping police reforms that would address brutality and racial profiling.

“They need to switch their brand fast,” Lauf said. “Because their hyperpartisanship is turning off a lot of women who just want common sense.”

Conservative candidates for school board and county supervisor in Wisconsin have fired similar broadsides when declining to participate in league debates. And in Pennsylvania this year, only 30% of Republican candidates completed the league’s VOTE411.org informational guide for the primaries, compared with 70% of Democrats, according to the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania. The guide gives voters the candidates’ unedited answers to questions about their qualifications, priorities and stances on certain issues.

Voter registration laws cripple efforts

Elsewhere, Republican-led policies make it harder for groups like the league to add people to the voting rolls. In Kansas, because of a change in law, the league no longer registers voters — a task that has long been central to its mission.

Under its bylaws, the league does not endorse candidates. And by policy, board members can’t run for or hold any partisan elected office. Nor can they chair a political campaign, or fundraise or actively work for any candidate for a partisan office.

Just as its founders were crusaders, however, the league itself is outspoken on a multitude of issues, including supporting universal health care, abortion rights, affordable child care and clean water. The league has pushed for gun control measures since 1990. And it has been a strong voice nationally for campaign finance reform. In some communities, the league has even weighed in on zoning decisions.

Its viewpoints have long branded the league as a progressive organization. “They’re very fine, but they tend to be a little bit liberal,” the late Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican from Kansas, said of the league during a televised 1976 vice presidential debate in Houston.

Those liberal leanings have been harder to ignore in recent years, forcing the league to defend itself against claims of partisanship.

After its CEO was arrested at the Kavanaugh protest in 2018, the league admitted in a statement that openly opposing a Supreme Court nominee was “an extraordinary step for the League,” but said it believed the action was warranted.

“This situation is too important to sit silently while the independence of our judiciary is threatened.” CEO Virginia Kase Solomón closed her legal case by paying a $50 fine.

The league’s chief communications officer, Sarah Courtney, told ProPublica in a written statement: “Organizations always need to change with the times and current events in order to stay relevant.”

She noted: “The League has been a force in American democracy for more than a century, and we expect to be around in another hundred years. We haven’t gotten this far by doing things the same way we did them in 1920.”

Voting rights push becomes target

UCLA professor Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert, said that while it’s clear that the league has been more aggressive in taking on controversial issues, it’s the group’s core mission that puts it at odds with some politicians. Supporting voting rights, he said, can be seen as an attack on the Republican Party, which has pushed for laws that make it more difficult to register and to vote. (Republicans say they are doing so to protect the integrity of elections, though there is no evidence of any widespread voter fraud.)

“It’s hard to be seen as neutral when you have the political parties dividing over questions like voting rights,” said Hasen, who directs the law school’s Safeguarding Democracy Project, which is aimed at researching election integrity.

To Hasen, the league’s evolution is notable. “Generally, there’s kind of a caricature of the league as kind of a group of old women coming together for tea,” he said. “Whereas, I think the league has become much more of a powerhouse in terms of advocating for strong voting rights.”

‘Dare to fight’

It took women more than 70 years of agitating, organizing and marching to convince men to give them the right to vote in 1920. Once the 19th Amendment was ratified, these activist women were wary of the political parties, which wanted their votes but not necessarily their input.

“Women in the parties must be more independent than men,” the league’s founder, suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, wrote, according to papers kept by the Library of Congress. “They must dare to fight for what they believe is right.”

Catt worried that some women would come to believe that all virtue or all wisdom was held by the party, paralyzing their judgment.

The league, which was formed the same year women nationwide were finally granted the right to vote, dedicated itself not to political parties, or the men running them, but to specific causes. One cause helped forge its identity: educating league members and other voters at election time.

Its first political agenda was long, numbering 69 items, and was called a “kettle of eels” by the league’s own president. Many of those items, such as child welfare and access to quality education, have remained league priorities for decades — as has its commitment to voter education. In 2018 and 2020, the league and ProPublica worked together to produce a guide sharing basic, nonpartisan information to help citizens choose among candidates and obtain ballots.

For nearly a century, the league itself seemed to change little, but by 2018 it found itself at a crossroads.

Leadership hired consultants and began to look for ways to reach disillusioned voters, combat misinformation in elections and effectively respond to society’s escalating racial issues, including the disenfranchisement of people of color.

“Although it remains a trusted household name, many stakeholders cannot describe clearly the purpose of the organization and are unclear about its relevance,” a league consultant wrote in a 2018 report. “The membership is much older and whiter than the population at large, and League membership has steadily declined by almost a third over the past few decades.”

Membership plunged from 72,657 in 1994 to 53,284 in 2017, according to the report. (It has since climbed back up to over 70,000, the league said.)

Membership gets competition

The organization also faced greater competition. Dozens of new nonprofits had emerged to protect voting rights, including Indivisible, NextGen America, Color of Change and Hip Hop Caucus.

According to the consultant’s report, league members long knew that its homogenous membership limited its effectiveness and its appeal to a broader audience. So, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, the league issued a formal mea culpa.

In an August 2018 blog post, the league’s president and its CEO admitted that “our organization was not welcoming to women of color through most of our existence” and vowed to build “a stronger, more inclusive democracy.” Many of the early suffragists were also abolitionists, but after the Civil War, they were divided over whether to support the 15th Amendment, which at the time gave Black men, but not women, the right to vote. The fissure persisted for decades and had lasting consequences for the league.

“Even during the Civil Rights movement, the League was not as present as we should have been,” the post said. “While activists risked life and limb to register black voters in the South, the League’s work and our leaders were late in joining to help protect all voters at the polls.”

In recent years, the league has been more visible in advocating for racial equity and fairness. It particularly focused on reducing barriers to voting in marginalized communities. The league has fought, for instance, against reductions in the number of polling places or voting hours in minority communities.

After a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd by kneeling on the Black man’s neck in May 2020, the league announced the next month that it would strongly push for reforms in the justice system, including changes aimed at preventing excessive force and brutality by law enforcement.

“The League of Women Voters of Minneapolis is not your grandmother’s League,” Anita Newhouse, the city chapter’s league president at the time, wrote in the MinnPost, a nonprofit news outlet, in August 2020. “We are still the nonpartisan education and advocacy group committed to empowering voters, but with a commitment to identifying racism and dismantling policies that suppress non-white votes.”

Advocates, Progressives or Democrats?

Even within the league, not everyone feels the group applies its principles evenly.

For five years, Sondra Cosgrove, a College of Southern Nevada history professor specializing in multicultural issues, ran the league in Nevada as it took on issues such as gerrymandering.

But she’s no longer part of the organization, and she wonders whether that’s because she was not always clearly in the Democrats’ corner.

In 2019, the league launched a 50-state Fair Maps strategy to combat racial and political gerrymandering. As league president in Nevada, Cosgrove began pushing for a ballot initiative that would create an independent commission to draw legislative district boundaries. The move would have taken power away from the Democrats, who controlled the statehouse and the governor’s office.

Cosgrove soon found the league’s ballot initiative challenged unsuccessfully in court by a Black activist and, later, by the Democratic governor, who did not allow petition signatures to be collected electronically during the pandemic.

About a week after her July 2020 op-ed accusing the Democrats of hypocrisy and “harassing” the league in Nevada, officials from the national league office emailed Cosgrove, instructing her to “stop making public statements online and in the media accusing the Democratic party of attacking the League of Women Voters.” The officials clarified that their position would be no different if Cosgrove was criticizing Republicans.

Cosgrove, however, said she told the league’s national office she wouldn’t seek its input on public statements. The league dissolved the state chapter not long afterward, in December 2020. Cosgrove and others quit the national organization and now are with another voting group.

“There was always the feeling the league was run by the Democrats,” said former Nevada league Treasurer Ann Marie Smith. “We tried to fight that to a large degree, but in my opinion the national league has gone down that road much further than they should have.”

Executives in the league’s national organization told ProPublica that the decision to shut down the state chapter was not an easy one and was made “after multiple attempts to resolve policy violations” that went beyond just the clash with the governor.

“Ultimately, the board had no choice but to disband the Nevada league to protect the entire organization,” Courtney, the league spokesperson, said. “Our northern Nevada local league has remained active with a dedicated group of members who are committed to rebuilding the league’s presence in the state.”

The league does sometimes call out Democrats.

In late July of this year, the league released an update on its Fair Maps initiative, saying it had organized public hearings in 24 states, used apps and software to test draw fairer maps in 38 states, and joined 11 state lawsuits and six federal cases challenging maps in California, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin. Two of those states feature Democrats in control of the state legislative chambers and the governor’s office. Five of them have Republican control. In the rest, control is split.

But, going forward, the league may find it more difficult to do the work it’s always done.

The league chapter in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, for instance, has faced what one member there called sustained opposition in recent years.

Complaints from a parent, who is also a Republican on the borough council, derailed the league’s annual Running and Winning high school program in 2019, which was to feature female speakers from both parties as a way to encourage young women to pursue careers in politics. The parent argued that the league had a political agenda and was excluding high school boys and male politicians.

Ultimately, the school district canceled the event.

Political tensions only got worse in the months that followed. When the newly created Laker Republican Club emailed an unsolicited mass membership appeal throughout the community, a league board member replied with an email questioning the morals, courage and patriotism of Trump and his supporters. The league defended her, saying she was speaking as a private citizen and she did not reference her role with the league.

Local Republicans running for borough council responded by refusing to participate in league debates in 2020. Former Mountain Lakes Mayor Blair Schleicher Wilson wrote in a local publication that she had been a member of the league for 25 years but now supported the candidates who shunned the league.

Wilson, a Republican, wrote that the local league chapter “has sadly lost their way.” In an interview with ProPublica, she added that she loved being involved with the league but believes it should stick only to voter advocacy. “I always thought their focus should be more on voter services,” she said. “That’s a perfect place for them.”

The chapter lost about 30 members because of the community tensions and is trying to rebuild, said former Mountain Lakes league President Mary Alosio-Joelsson, now the organization’s events leader.

She believes conservatives in Mountain Lakes have changed, not the league. “Many have moved so far to the right that anybody who is walking down the middle of the road looks like they’re on the left,” she said.

The shift in the country’s political climate also has far-reaching implications for what the league considers some of its most essential work. In Kansas, the organization halted registration work a year ago after a measure enacted by a Republican-led legislature made it a felony to engage “in conduct that would cause another person to believe a person … is an election official.”

The league worried its volunteers could be prosecuted if someone mistakenly believed them to be election officials while registering voters. Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez, a Democrat, agreed there were problems with the law and said she wouldn’t pursue cases of alleged violations.

“This law criminalizes essential efforts by trusted nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters to engage Kansans on participation in accessible, accountable and fair elections,” she said in a statement.

But Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, quickly retorted that his office would, indeed, prosecute alleged violators.

The league asked the Kansas Court of Appeals for an injunction that would temporarily prevent the law from being enforced, but the group lost and is now requesting a review from the state Supreme Court.

Despite the setback, Jacqueline Lightcap, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, said the league intends to continue to work to defend democracy and empower voters. But she said the mission has become harder. Even seeking dialogue with legislators on the ramifications of the registration law is difficult.

“We are not getting much traction,” she said.

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Megan OMatz/ProPublica

Megan O’Matz is a reporter at ProPublica, where she covers issues out of Wisconsin. O’Matz comes to ProPublica from the South Florida Sun Sentinel, where she worked for two decades. She was a finalist...