The League of Women Voters has been a fixture of elections for nearly a hundred years, organizing candidate forums and promoting voter participation across the country. Now, especially in rural areas, changing times mean those familiar civic programs are in danger of disappearing.
For more than forty years, the Klamath County chapter of the League of Women Voters has been doing what chapters all across the U.S. have always done; studying local issues, proposing non-partisan solutions and generally pushing for better, more responsive government.
Now, with their members aging and their numbers dwindling, chapter president Leslie Lowe says the remaining handful of active members simply can’t handle all the work needed to be an effective chapter.
Leslie Lowe: "It’s extremely limiting."
The group is planning to sponsor a candidates’ forum before the primary next May. But Lowe says …
Leslie Lowe: "If we have not gotten ten new members that can be active, we will close this chapter, because we’ve been struggling now for the past ten years."
Retired architect Nina Pence was one of the original members of the Klamath County chapter. She says the group was formed in the early 1970s by citizens concerned about boosting the police and sheriff’s departments.
Nina Pence: "There just wasn’t enough law enforcement. Klamath County kind of had the reputation of being the Wild West, at that time."
The fledgling group eventually helped in getting a new jail built. Over the years since, the League took on a variety of other causes. In 2006, the League got a ballot measure passed that raised a tax on hotel rooms and other transient accommodations, to fund tourism programs and cultural events. As recently as last spring, the group spearheaded a successful measure to make county commissioner races non-partisan, which they say will give voters a wider range of choices. Pence, who’s in her late 80s, says she’s dismayed at the prospect of the chapter folding.
Nina Pence: "I care about my community and I can see that the League has had an influence on it."
Leslie Lowe sees a variety of factors contributing to the challenges of attracting new, younger members. Everyone’s too busy, scrambling to raise the kids, pay the bills and meet other obligations. Lowe also points to new technologies changing how people engage in civic life.
Leslie Lowe: "They tweet and they Twitter and they Facebook and email and they’re on all kinds of lists and stuff like that."
The same forces that are squeezing the League of Women Voters in Klamath County are affecting rural areas around Oregon, and around the country. Bill Hughes, associate professor of political science at Southern Oregon University, says young people and families are moving away from rural communities. That means a breakdown in generation-to-generation membership in organizations with strong local roots, such as the League .
Bill Hughes: "My mom, or my aunt, or my grandmother, or -- since, I think, ’73, ’74 – my dad, my uncle whoever, is in the League, it was part of what was going on when we were growing up, and so we’re going to do that too ... That’s declining and just in terms of demographics, that’s one of the reasons."
Hughes also points to a growing tendency to see politics as blood sport.
Bill Hughes: "People, they’re drawn to the cut and thrust, they’re drawn to the shouting, blowtorch talk radio, blowtorch commentary on TV. That world doesn’t accommodate a kind of centrist, civic activism, good-government organization like the League of Women Voters."
Meanwhile, in Klamath County, Leslie Lowe is preparing for the worst. She says the loss of the League of Women Voters chapter would be a blow to civility in local politics.
Leslie Lowe: "I think more than ever we need a non-partisan organization to create a place of sanity."
Whether the League can continue to play that role in the civic life of Klamath County is a question that will be answered by next May, the group’s deadline for getting an infusion of eager new members.