There is no “right” age to give back to your community. But for members of the League of Women Voters (LWV)—50 state League (and the District of Columbia), and more than 750-plus local leagues— there are key ways that leadership, which includes many volunteers older than age 50, is working to revolutionize our civic life. That work includes bringing people together, inspiring hope around government and expanding the franchise to new citizens.
Let’s look at two Leagues in particular—one that supports the ability of brand-new citizens to register to vote in Houston, Texas; and the other that works on government transparency in Alabama. It’s a job—among many—that Leagues are tackling around the country. What follows are highlights of these programs.
New Citizen Registration in Houston, Texas
In Houston, naturalization ceremonies are a big deal. A diverse city, Houston has more than 2 million residents, and a metro area with many more. It claims to be the most ethnically diverse metropolitan area in the United States—with about 145 languages spoken. Also, there are thousands of people at any one time studying to be accepted as U.S. citizens and each month, some receive news that they will be sworn in through the naturalization process via the USCIS (U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services) system or the federal court.
The Houston League and the League of Women Voters in general has a long history of being there to welcome new citizens into civic life in the United States by registering them to vote and sharing how to participate in the democratic process.
Dr. Annie Johnson Benifield is president of the Houston league, and for 27 years, the League of Houston has been working to welcome these new citizens. League volunteers have developed a strong relationship with the USCIS immigration services and the judges who host these naturalization ceremonies. Prior to the start of these events, the volunteers wade into the crowd and talk to the citizens-to-be, congratulating them and answering questions about their experiences, which increases familiarity with and confidence in the volunteers.
According to Benifield, these naturalization events are among the most emotional and satisfying programs the League runs. “It’s our plum program; we get from 20–30 volunteer leaders to show up and do this work—I live a little outside of where the ceremony is, but even when it’s raining, I will weather the storm and drive in to support this effort.” During these ceremonies, one of the most meaningful moments to her is the special part of the ceremony honoring the service to our country of newly naturalized citizens who are veterans of the armed forces, before they gain the benefits of citizenship.
In a January naturalization ceremony, the Houston League registered almost 2,000 new voters.
The numbers of newly registered voters at these events demonstrate the Houston League’s volunteerism impact. There are more than 100 different countries represented—and in one of the January ceremonies, the League registered almost 2,000 new voters. When these events are held in person, the League can register tens of thousands of new citizens a year. Even during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the ceremonies were limited only to the applicant, the League worked with USCIS to provide paper registration cards to new citizens, along with a handcrafted note from League volunteers to inspire new registrants about participating and voting.
As Benifield said, “These volunteers are real champions—they want to support every new citizen in the room and ensure every citizen should have their say. We never tell people who to vote for, we never take any contact information from registrants at these events, we turn over the registration forms to our partners in the Harris County Texas Voter Registration office. The integrity of the process is just so important to us.”
Promoting Open Government in Alabama
While there has been important movement in the U.S. Congress, many observers of American politics are turning their attention to what’s happening in state legislatures. Much of the law that governs how we live our lives, educate our families, provide safety nets, and protect the public comes from the state legislative process; yet each state is different.
For years, Alabama League members have monitored the state legislature to analyze proposed bills, educate and engage the public, and issue calls to action. But the opaqueness of Alabama’s government made the League’s efforts extremely difficult. When Alabama League member Tara Bailey approached League President Kathy Jones with an idea to create an online, searchable archive of the state’s legislative meetings, Jones immediately recognized it as a way the League could lead by example to show what a transparent, accessible government could, and should, look like.
The newly created Alabama Channel allows citizens and the media to see their legislature in action.
The Alabama League worked to secure grant funding to develop the Alabama Channel, and appointed Bailey to direct the effort. Jones and the Alabama League leadership reserved a range of domain names and obtained trademark and copyright protection for the Channel. They also met with Alabama officials to inform them about what the League was developing and invited them to voice any concerns. Through Bailey’s perseverance, leadership and technical expertise, the Alabama Channel went live in less than a year. It has been received with intense interest by the media, legislators, citizens and advocacy groups and it continues to raise the visibility of the Alabama League.
Alabama is one of only four states that does not archive their legislative meetings for later review. The Alabama Channel fills that void. It allows the public to view livestreamed and recorded State Senate and House Chamber and committee meetings at their convenience, thus becoming more informed voters. The transcription feature also allows for a search function (unavailable in many states) where viewers can quickly identify when a particular topic of debate was discussed. Bailey’s extensive research identified an organization, the Open Media Foundation, which gave the Alabama League permission to use its powerful software platform.
Staffing restrictions in local news outlets have prevented extensive, in-person coverage of state legislatures, but now, the Channel allows news organizations to review recorded video footage of the sessions. Through the Channel, journalists, policy experts and citizens can easily search, identify, confirm, and fact-check what was said. Citizens can be well-informed about complex policy debate and know exactly what legislators are saying and doing in their role as representatives.
The Alabama League is hosting informational sessions across the state to promote this exciting new tool. Widespread interest in and use of the Alabama Channel will greatly improve government transparency and promote accountability in state government.
The Leagues in Houston and Alabama have dozens of programs, plans and events that aid in civic life for their communities. These two programs, led by League leaders and supported by our volunteers, show the impact of giving back. The League of Women Voters is proud to be a home where such leaders can serve, and we welcome volunteers across the country to find those ways to lead at LWV.org. Everyone can find that satisfaction of supporting democracy in a way that fits where they live.
Adam Ambrogi is chief of External Affairs at the League of Women Voters of the United States.
Photo credit: Courtesy League of Women Voters
Photo caption: Dedicated LWV Houston naturalization ceremonies volunteers Rosalie Buggs, Annie Johnson Benifield, Judy Viebig, Elnita and Judy Hollinger.