Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins is worried. Rather than getting down to the business of election reform, the Congress has been bickering over the composition of a special commission created to tackle the issue. Jefferson-Jenkins fears that election reform, once a hot topic, is growing cold.

“It has been our experience that, in the midst of a crisis, we get a reaction and once the crisis subsides, the call to action is not as intense,” said Jefferson-Jenkins, president of the League of Women Voters. “With all the other issues that this new Congress will be dealing with, we don’t want (election reform) to get lost.”

One of the nation’s oldest and most influential advocates for voting rights and voter education, the 81-year-old league has called for sweeping changes in the election system, from abolishing the Electoral College and campaign finance reform to strengthening “Motor Voter” registration laws and modernizing the voting and vote-counting processes. Although voting rights are the mainstay of the league’s mission, the organization has had difficulty staying afloat in recent years. Last year, the New York chapter nearly folded its Manhattan office in the wake of plummeting membership and corporate donations.

A $25,000 grant from utility giant Con Edison helped keep the office from going under, but money woes still plague many of the League’s 50 state and 1,000 local chapters. In January, the St. Paul, Minn., chapter reduced its already small staff and moved in with another organization, citing five years of deficits.

Rooted in Women’s Suffrage, League Informs on the Issues

The League of Women Voters, founded in the heady aftermath of woman’s suffrage, was once the country’s premiere non-profit voting rights and education advocate. Its role as a sponsor of presidential debates helped gild its reputation as a champion of people’s right to be informed about campaign issues and to vote freely.

But the Commission on Presidential Debates, established in 1987, took that role away from the league and the organization’s influence faded.

Jefferson-Jenkins, a Colorado educator and the league’s first African American president, said last year’s successful voter participation campaign may attract the two things the league needs most to prosper–new members and new money.

“We were so encouraged that voter participation actually did increase this time,” she said, “so we can go back with that message and say, Look, it may have taken longer than you thought, but it did happen.”

“One of the things that we are asking for is some kind of federal grant program that would allow a subsidy for those people who are upgrading and updating their system,” said Jefferson-Jenkins. She warned that, without assistance from Washington, many states and local jurisdictions would not be able to replace outdated, inadequate and often unreliable voting machinery–one of the main villains of the 2000 presidential election debacle.

“The league has long been an advocate of the one person, one vote principle and anything that compromises that is a challenge to our democratic process,” Jefferson-Jenkins explained. “What we saw in Election 2000 were a series of compromises.”

League Pushes for High-Tech Voting

Replacing punch cards, paper ballots and mechanical levers with more efficient and accurate high-tech voting is a common demand among election reformers. In a resolution on Feb. 6, the National Association of Secretaries of State recommended that Congress pay for system upgrades “in consensus with state and local election officials.” The Congressional Black Caucus has proposed federal grants to states for new or improved voting equipment.

But it’s an expensive proposition. Experts have said it will take up to $9 billion to re-outfit the nation’s 7,000 voting jurisdictions. Current proposals for federal grants are nowhere near that much, ranging from $250 million to $325 million.

Jefferson-Jenkins says most changes in the American way of voting will occur at the state and local level, but the federal government has a role too, aside from equipment grants.

“There has got to be a decision about the Electoral College,” she said, noting that her organization was one of the first and fiercest to call for scuttling the college. A 1970 league study concluded that direct election by popular vote was “essential to representative government.”

Pressed by the league, the House passed a measure to abolish the Electoral College in 1971, but the bill failed in the Senate. Until last year’s skintight race was decided by the electoral vote, sparking widespread contention, Capitol Hill had not seriously revisited the issue.

Jefferson-Jenkins said the league is “encouraged” by the attention election reform is getting in Congress now, and “we’re cautiously optimistic” that the lawmakers will move beyond appointing a commission to actually revising election laws. She said hearings and special commissions are one thing, but the entanglements of 2000 demand substantive change.

League officials also hope the country will take notice of another development in last year’s election–good news, this time.

Higher Voter Participation by Women and People of Color

“There was actually an increase in voter participation this time around, but you don’t hear people talking about it,” Jefferson-Jenkins ruefully noted. “There was a significant increase among women of color and people of color. You don’t hear that because those were the areas in which there also was the greatest dysfunction in the system.”

The League takes credit for some of that growth, estimated to be a 2 percent increase overall. In keeping with its founding mission, the league mobilized a voter registration and get-out-the-vote effort in 2000, teaming with other groups that targeted women, people of color and youths.

“All of the members of our coalition made a concerted effort to get people out to the polls,” Jefferson-Jenkins recalled. “And then, when they got to the polls, they found that, in some instances, the voting that we envisioned for them was not as easy as we had said it was.

“Missing the story about increased voter participation not only has a dampening effect on morale, Jefferson-Jenkins said; it also hurts fund-raising efforts for non-partisan, non-profit organizations like the league.

“Many foundations and funders were very enthusiastic about trying to get democracy to work and all of these many facets of the league,” said Jefferson-Jenkins. “What they didn’t see was an increase in voter participation. So, in their estimation, the money was not generating the kind of response they wanted.”

Jefferson-Jenkins thinks both the good and bad news of the 2000 vote–from the vote-counting controversy to the increase in voters–may re-energize philanthropists and their support of the league’s fundamental goal of increasing voter participation.

Deborah Mathis is an award-winning journalist. Formerly with the Gannett News Service, she currently is a Harvard Shorenstein fellow.

For more information, visit:

League of Women voters:

Democracy Network:

National Association of Secretaries of State:

Project Vote Smart:

Public Agenda:

Voting Integrity Project:

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A special Women’s Enews feature during March.

In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha Coffin Wright, Jane Hunt and Mary Ann McClintock meet in Waterloo, N.Y., to realize the vision of women’s equality. They call for the first women’s rights convention and Stanton drafts the Declaration of Sentiments patterned on the Declaration of Independence. The convention, held in the Wesleyan Chapel, adopts a rights agenda that includes suffrage, for which Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, spoke ardently. The resolution passed. A movement began. –Glenda Crank Holste