ORLANDO, Fla. — When passengers lift off on a massive space balloon from Kennedy Space Center in a couple of years, they’ll be flying in a sleek, cone-shaped capsule with reflective windows offering 360-degree views 20 miles above the Earth’s surface. Space Perspective revealed new designs for the exterior of what resembles a high-tech golf ball on a tee for the capsule of its Spaceship Neptune space balloon that is being manufactured at facilities on the Space Coast. Key to the design is both exterior and interior features designed to keep passengers comfortable and safe during six-hour fligh...
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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.
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.
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.”
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.)
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.
More than a year and a half into President Joe Biden's first term, Louis DeJoy—a megadonor to former President Donald Trump and a villain in the eyes of progressives and many Democratic lawmakers—is still running the U.S. Postal Service.
DeJoy's staying power in the face of widespread outrage over his sabotage of postal operations and his ethics scandals, one of which spurred an FBI probe, can largely be attributed to the loyalty of the USPS Board of Governors, a majority of which has remained supportive of the postmaster general amid repeated calls for his ouster over the past two years.
While Biden lacks the authority to fire DeJoy directly, he does have the ability to alter the composition of the postal board, which can replace the postmaster general with a simple-majority vote.
As The American Prospect's David Dayen explained Wednesday, the president may soon have an opportunity to pave the way for DeJoy's removal by nominating two DeJoy opponents to postal governor spots that will be open in December, when the terms of Republican William Zollars and Democrat Donald Lee Moak—allies of the postmaster general—expire.
"Moak's presence has been one reason why DeJoy has continued in his position, despite Biden having appointed a majority of the board and all of its other Democrats," Dayen noted. "Roman Martinez, a Republican, serves as board chair, despite the fact that Republicans only hold four of the board's nine slots."
"The Postal Service Board of Governors has a requirement that only a bare majority of its members, in this case five out of nine, be affiliated with the president's own party," Dayen continued. "However, board member Amber McReynolds, whom Biden appointed in 2021, is a registered independent. Therefore, it's technically possible for Biden to replace Moak and Zollars with Democrats who align with the vast majority of the Democratic base in opposing DeJoy. That would ensure enough votes to fire DeJoy."
Earlier this month, a coalition of more than 80 advocacy organizations led by Take on Wall Street sent a letter pushing Biden to nominate replacements for Moak and Zollars who are "wholly committed to the task of protecting and expanding our Postal Service."
The 83 groups also expressed alarm over DeJoy's stated plan to "raise postage prices at 'uncomfortable rates' around the country" as part of his decadelong policy vision, which has drawn pushback from postal unions, lawmakers, and Democratic members of the USPS board.
"Additionally, numerous post office locations are set to be shuttered under his 10-year restructuring plan, potentially impacting thousands of employees during a time of economic crisis," the groups wrote. "After DeJoy's numerous failings at the helm, it is imperative that we have a strong, full, and reform-oriented Postal Board of Governors in place to hold him accountable to the true mission and public service goals of the USPS."
"This is one of the last opportunities your administration has to appoint governors to the postal board," they added.
The letter, dated August 1, was sent days after DeJoy announced his goal of slashing 50,000 positions from the Postal Service in the coming years, an effort that the 200,000-member American Postal Workers Union (APWU) condemned and vowed to fight.
"If it's management's intent to weaken our union, attack our pay and conditions, or eliminate family-sustaining union postal jobs, the [postmaster general] will get a strong fight from the APWU," Mark Dimondstein, the union's president, told Government Executive last week.
"We will oppose future job reductions that affect the lives of the postal workers we represent," Dimondstein added. "Rest assured that any such management actions will be met with [the] unbridled opposition of the APWU."
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Stop WOKE Act suffered a two-punch blow Thursday as a federal judge blocked parts of the controversial law and a coalition of civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit against what they are calling "racially motivated censorship."
"Under our constitutional scheme, the remedy for repugnant speech is more speech, not enforced silence."
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, issued a preliminary injunction against portions of the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act, also called the Individual Freedom Act, saying it violates First Amendment free speech protections and the 14th Amendment's Due Process Clause.
The Stop WOKE Act—sometimes also referred to as the Individual Freedom Act and the "white discomfort law"—prohibits classroom discussions or corporate training that make students or workers feel uneasy about their race. The legislation is widely viewed by progressives as part of the GOP-led war on critical race theory, a graduate-level academic framework for understanding systemic racism in the United States.
"Florida's legislators may well find plaintiffs' speech repugnant. But under our constitutional scheme, the remedy for repugnant speech is more speech, not enforced silence," wrote Walker.
"If Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society, then let it make its case," the judge added. "But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents."
Walker's ruling forayed into pop culture Zeitgeist:
In the popular television series "Stranger Things," the "upside down" describes a parallel dimension containing a distorted version of our world... Recently, Florida has seemed like a First Amendment "upside down." Normally, the First Amendment bars the state from burdening speech, while private actors may burden speech freely. But in Florida, the First Amendment apparently bars private actors from burdening speech, while the state may burden speech freely... Now, like the heroine in "Stranger Things," this court is once again asked to pull Florida back from the "upside down."
Rights groups hailed the decision, with Protect Democracy tweeting that "the Stop WOKE Act is a speech code that takes a page from the authoritarian playbook" and "seeks to censor ideas that challenge government officials' preferred narrative, muzzle independent institutions, and direct outrage toward disfavored groups."
Also on Thursday, the ACLU, ACLU of Florida, Legal Defense Fund, and the law firm Ballard Spahr filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of Florida professors, alleging the Stop WOKE Act violates the First and 14th amendments.
The suit calls the law "racially motivated censorship that the Florida Legislature enacted, in significant part, to stifle widespread demands to discuss, study, and address systemic inequalities, following the nationwide protests that provoked discussions about race and racism in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd."
"Not only does the law prohibit instructors from teaching the Legislature's disfavored viewpoints in the manner dictated by their disciplines, but its vague terms generate uncertainty about when and how the law will apply, thus creating an even greater chilling effect on academic expression," the complaint states.
"The Stop WOKE Act is a speech code that takes a page from the authoritarian playbook."
The ACLU tweeted that "the First Amendment protects the right to learn for educators and students. The Stop WOKE Act deprives classrooms of important learning tools and conversations to challenge racism and sexism and discriminates against Black educators and students."
"We have a right to teach and learn free from state censorship and discrimination," the group added.
Thursday's ruling and lawsuit come two weeks after DeSantis suspended State Attorney Andrew Warren after he vowed not to prosecute people who violate Florida's 15-week abortion ban or restrictions on gender-affirming healthcare.
In announcing the suspension—which Warren challenged in federal court on Wednesday as a violation of his First Amendment rights—DeSantis referred to the state attorney as "woke."
In a Wednesday appearance on CNN, Warren explained that "we're fighting back to make sure that even though Ron DeSantis is governor, the First Amendment still has meaning. The Florida Constitution has meaning and elections still have meaning."
DeSantis has been called a hypocrite for touting Florida as a haven for freedom while signing laws that restrict reproductive, educational, and other liberties, including the right to protest.