The League of Women Voters is celebrating its centennial in 2020, and the Seminole County chapter of this iconic organization is helping the group’s century-old vision thrive
Established in 1920 by members of the women’s suffrage movement, the League of Women Voters (LWV) is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. To combat what the cartoons from the 1920s suggested (that women would simply vote the way of their husbands), the league was formed to educate new, female voters and assist with voter registration.
One hundred years later, the group’s mission remains steadfast – to increase voter registration and educate voters with nonpartisan, objective information about candidates and amendments. The national organization supports more than 700 state and local leagues, comprising 500,000 members and supporters. One of 29 leagues in the state, the Seminole County LWV chapter was formed in the 1960s.
“This is the most significant year in our history because we have the census, the 100-year anniversary of the women’s right to vote, and a presidential election,” says Sharon Lynn, president of the local chapter.
“Voter education is the key function,” adds Pat Southward, a league member since the 1970s.
The League of Women Voters of Seminole County sponsors many programs to support its mission, like Vote411.org, a website dedicated to informing the public about candidates in a specific district. Simply enter an address and the site will list upcoming elections with information about each candidate – from the president to state candidates all the way to county commissioners. It is completely unbiased, and voters of both parties or no party rely on the guide as a non-partisan informative source.
“We draft five questions that are appropriate for the office – every candidate for that office gets the same questions,” explains Sharon. “They type in their answers, so you can compare apples to apples.”
A major point of pride for the league is its selection of questions to judges. Since judges’ campaign activities are restricted, and their role is to follow the law, the league presents such questions as “Of the cases you’ve been involved with, what’s the one you’re most proud of the result?” This gives voters an idea as to the judge’s position.
If the league receives sufficient cooperation from candidates during a specific election cycle, it will host an evening forum during which the public can ask specific questions of the candidates. Many candidates are impressed with the breadth of knowledge the league members bring. Sharon recalls one of the forums they hosted for Seminole County School Board candidates.
“We’re an informed group,” she says. “We don’t ask softball questions.”
Last year, the league began presenting the forums via Facebook Live, reaching more than 4,500 people.
The LWV also hosts Hot Topics luncheons that are held on the fourth Thursday of the month at a Longwood restaurant. These luncheons, which are open to the public, focus on specific topics of interest to voters – from affordable housing and election security to recycling. A panel of experts presents information and fields questions with the help of a moderator. While the league does support certain causes – protection of the county’s natural resources is one – it never backs a candidate.
Keeping It Local
True to its name, the Seminole County LWV chapter shines a light on county government and the candidates who seek county offices.
“Everyone wants to think about who’s running for president,” says Sharon, “but we like to have people understand their county government, because that’s where so many things that can impact us will happen.”
The league also focuses on Constitutional amendments and hosts specific presentations to help voters understand these often confusing initiatives.
“As far as I know, the league is the only source for objective, non-partisan, pro/con information on the proposed Constitutional amendments,” explains Pat. “Candidates and elected officials come and go, but the Constitutional amendments are carved in granite. It’s a complicated process to change or repeal an amendment, but the voter has perhaps the least amount of information about the Constitutional amendments.”
In 2018, with 12 proposed amendments on the ballot, the league hosted nearly 50 amendments presentations.
“We were everywhere,” remembers Sharon.
For 2020, three amendments have already been cleared for the ballot, one is pending, and there could be more. The league will begin scheduling amendments presentations beginning in September and lasting through the general election in November.
The organization also hosts spring speaker presentations. One in particular explains the structure of Florida state government, which is especially helpful for new transplants who have relocated from areas where school systems are run by individual cities.
“It’s a hard adjustment to wrap their mind around an independently elected School Board,” explains Pat. “Here, the School Board members are elected just like the county commissioners, the governor, and the cabinet members.”
The Girls in Government program is another initiative organized by the league. Currently in place at South Seminole Middle School, the program connects students and elected women in the community. Every school year, approximately 50 girls have the opportunity to learn about the League of Women Voters and women’s suffrage and to hear short presentations from women in government. Students can then question the elected officials about their careers and specific interests. The yearlong program covers local government responsibilities including administration and procedures. As a follow-up activity, tours are conducted of the courthouse and other government buildings.
Government in the Sunshine
In 2017 and 2019, the League of Women Voters of Seminole County sponsored a Solar Co-Op in an effort to inform citizens about the benefits of residential solar power and assist in making choices for their homes. As a result, 109 Seminole residents installed solar panels on their roofs.
“I was so pleased that the league was able to get involved with the Solar Co-Op,” says Sharon. “It was a tangible result and such an important piece of our environmental outreach.”
The league is also coordinating its volunteers to partner with census administrators to reach people in under-reported areas. The league’s census committee is visiting churches and talking to unions in an effort to count everyone, since each person in Seminole County represents about $20,000 for the county over 10 years. The census results impact schools, roadways, and county and emergency services, among other government programs.
Educating the community about election-related topics is a passion for both Sharon and Pat.
“I just love what we do,” says Sharon.
To learn more about the League of Women Voters of Seminole County or to schedule a presentation at your church, business, or community organization, visit LWVSeminole.org.
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