Making Democracy Work

2010's Narrated by Rosalind Blanco Cook

LWVNO HISTORY - 2010s by Rosalind Blanco Cook

The 2010 decade was a really, really exciting decade. There were many firsts. Of course, we had elected our first African American president in 2008. He took office in 2009 and he was well into his first term by the beginning of the decade. There were many accolades, but there was much criticism at the time, also. And of course, as the decade went on, we saw the first woman selected to be the presidential nominee of a major political party. That's pretty exciting. Of course, as of today, we do not have a woman president in the history of the United States but we are very optimistic that that day will come.

On the music scene, we had many women and other men who were really sounding out a new generation of music, for example, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, Adele, Rihanna and Drake. Music really became pretty pertinent to the atmosphere of the decade, somewhat like it was in the `60s and `70s, but one would suggest perhaps not quite as political as the `60s or the `70s. The first woman in the film industry to produce/direct a major film became an Oscar winner. So, we could say that women were making gains.

But as we progressed through the decade, there is a suggestion that some of those gains are being eroded. And the League of Women Voters, as well as other organizations, are certainly looking into that. There is much more political activity by women at this time as the decade progresses. Part of it is the feeling that perhaps all of the gains that have been made in the decades previous may be eroded, and that woman will lose some of those rights and political gains. The League is interested in making sure that there are no or few losses of our gains.

One of the achievements of the League in this particular decade was in promoting voter turnout. As we know, local elections often have low voter turnouts. Presidential elections always attract more attention. Having thought about this and having really gotten through the challenges of bringing back voters after hurricane Katrina, the League under the presidency of Lea Young, and then certainly under the direction of Linda Walker, took on what turned out to be an enormous project, much more so than we would have thought. It was, how do we improve voter turnout?

In municipal elections, the calendar actually called for New Orleans municipal elections to be scheduled in the early part of the year. Of course that meant that the campaigns would coincide with the holiday season; with the winter Olympics; and with sporting events such as the Sugar Bowl. We had actually seen a Super Bowl that was held here and one of the astounding facts was that the election really was precluded by the Super Bowl that year. In fact, when Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor the Saints were playing, and our Times-Picayune didn't even have the mayoral election on the front cover. So, our conclusion was that this was a project that that the League needed to undertake: changing the election calendar so that it wouldn't coincide with all these celebrations and holidays that we have in the spring in the city of New Orleans.

Most individuals did recognize that it's probably not the best time to have elections when you have Mardi Gras parades. In fact, one of the years, there had to be a change since New Orleans has their municipal elections on Saturdays. With a big parade like Endymion, which always rolls on a Saturday, there was no way for trucks delivering voting machines to get in and out. Not to even talk about people having problems getting to their precincts to vote. So, I think there was an acknowledgement that holding elections in the carnival Mardi Gras season did probably hamper people from voting, or perhaps give them another excuse to stay home or go to the parade rather than vote.

So, having decided to try to change election scheduling, we of course did our research. It is very difficult to predict how you can encourage people to turn out in large numbers, or even turn out for that matter. We have seen in elections that sometimes, if people are disgusted, they just stay home for an election. Other times, it may give them the impetus to go out to vote. But it's very difficult to predict voter turnout and what we can do to make voters turn out.

Having said that we did research when to have the municipal elections. Should it be perhaps at the same time as congressional elections? Should it be at a completely different time? We met with the Secretary of State's staff and followed some of the advice that they gave us. We met with our local Registrar of Voters' office. We met with candidates who had recently had elections to first ask them what they thought about having an election in the spring of the year. Would it hamper their efforts to campaign or, also, important, to fundraise? Some of the previous candidates thought the present system did hinder their efforts to campaign. Another was pretty confident that he would have brought in just as much money no matter what time of the year the election was held. Of course, that candidate didn't even win his election. But, there were suggestions on all sides as to when would the best time to hold an election.

The Secretary of State's office did suggest to us that there were certain times of the year when there would be a longer ballot, and there are some restrictions as far as the length of a ballot when you are putting items on the ballot other than just candidates, whether they are referendums or other things that need to be voted on. So, after having done research, meeting with candidates, meeting with people that are involved in holding elections, meeting with the Republican election leaders here, meeting with the Democratic election leaders in the City of New Orleans, we charted out all the possibilities of the times that elections could be held and the pros and cons of each of those particular dates.

Then, of course, we had to go to the legislature--the state legislature has to approve any changes in election laws. We lobbied quite a bit with our state legislators. We also had to convince City Council people. We had to speak with the mayor. Of course, no one wants to lose any of his term. There was a lot of going back and forth, there was quite a bit of acquiescing, really, to satisfy some of the elected officials. Then the public had to vote for it. The League, of course, did campaign somewhat before the election to really inform the public why this would be a better option than leaving it in the present schedule.

All this really turned into a years-long process. The beginning was in the very, very early part of the decade. The first published report that we did, and we are still giving out that particular report, was in 2011. Thereafter to get a change in the election schedule through was a very, very long struggle.

And even after we thought everything had fallen in place, and the election was scheduled in 2017 for October and then the run off in November, we found out that an elected official wanted to change it again and not have the new schedule take effect this year, in 2017. He wanted to wait another four years. So that would have been in 2021. We had already missed several elections from the time that we had first started our endeavors. Certainly, it was an experience that awakened in all the individuals that participated a realization of how sometimes change will come but it may take almost a decade before it happens. And, also, that persistence is needed to make change happen; that our culture will cling to keeping things as they are, not wanting to make any accommodations. A struggle is needed to really bring about any type of change.

We, of course, are looking forward to this 2017 election season, and we do think that it will bring a bit more smoothness to the campaign. People will be able to campaign a little bit more without all the distractions. Of course, in New Orleans, there is always some sort of distraction, but without the distractions that they faced previously. It will be interesting to see if candidates do find it's a little bit easier to fundraise when people were not buying Christmas presents or celebrating New Year's Eve, etc.

The League of Women Voters did receive a Citizens Participations Award from the Committee for a Better New Orleans for outstanding work by an organization, in bringing about this particular change in the election season.

We were also recognized for another effort: registering newly naturalized citizens. Every Friday, Sue Dicharry and her volunteers are at the naturalization ceremony held by the U.S. Immigration Service to encourage the newly naturalized citizens to register to vote and to actually vote. That has been a very successful program, and we have also been acknowledged for that. In fact, we were a finalist in a competition run by the national League, and we were noted at last year's 2016 LWV national convention for the efforts that the New Orleans League has put into that. We have worked very closely with our Register of Voters, and it has been a very, very successful project.

The League has noticed that people, and I would say, woman in particular, are becoming quite a bit more interested in the politics of this region and also of the nation. We are seeing a bit of an increase in membership. Of course, after Katrina we lost many of our members. It was very difficult to contact individuals, and even if individuals were in town, perhaps the League didn't know where they were staying, and so it has been quite a bit of an effort trying to bring back membership figures. But our numbers are increasing, as is membership in other organizations. And we do think that the current political turmoil is causing that.

Individuals, men and woman, want to actually do something. Often times, they don't know what they want to do or what they should be doing. But the League is a very, very reputable, respected organization, so they have turned to the League to be able to work on issues.

Of course, we do quite a bit of work with the state legislature. Many of us were back and forth on the road to Baton Rouge working for particular issues, particular bills. When Joyce Corrington was state League president, she encouraged us to form committees devoted to special issues and to select at least five different bills on that issue which we supported or opposed. We have worked with those bills and with the authors of those bills. With the number of League members that do go up to the state legislature, I find that our legislators definitely know who their constituents are and what they think. We, of course, always want to emphasize that our members should know who their representative are. But I think it is equally important that legislatures recognize who their constituents are.

One of the projects that we will certainly be looking at in the future is the redistricting. There has been much criticism that no longer do voters select who's representing them but actually the state legislatures do--because that's who, in most states, actually select their constituency by making sure the lines are drawn in such a way to assure that their particular party wins. Certainly, partisan gerrymandering is pretty prevalent now. And one of the ideas of democracy, the idea that voters vote for who represents them, can be challenged by this. And the League is really very interested in working with that particular project.

We, of course, will continue our efforts in voter registration. In Louisiana, actually, the number of registered voters is at and exceedingly high rate. So, it's not that people are not registering to vote, it's the low voter turnout that is the concern for the League. And as elections come about, we will be working on projects to try to see what we can do to get individuals to actually go out to vote. In Louisiana, we have early voting. Many people are turning to that in the New Orleans region. Individuals 65 and older can now receive mail in ballots. So, we do work with the Register of Voters and other entities to try to encourage turnout of vote.

I would say, one of the most positive advancements I have seen in the League is our willingness to work with other organizations. There are quite a number of organizations that have the same goals as the League does, and by working together we can further our objectives. Certainly, with Katrina, we recognized the importance of working with other organizations. And I would say, as this 75th year comes and goes, that one of our aims will be to continue to work with other organizations so that together, we can, as a coalition, achieve our goals of providing information to voters to increase the number of voters, and also to make sure that redistricting is fair and equitable.

The League of Women Voters of New Orleans is very excited with this 75th year anniversary and our emphasis is on making democracy work.