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Well-dressed people sit around long white-clothed tables with white chairs on a lawn, under a eucalyptus tree.

‘We think people should be educated voters’: On 100th anniversary, Oakland League of Women Voters recruits new members to mission

on July 8, 2024

A century ago, in the shadow of a newly constructed Tribune Tower, a group of women met at Hotel Oakland to establish an organization that would reflect their nascent civic power. Over the ensuing 100 years, both landmarks would close, but the League of Women Voters of Oakland remains.

Last month, on the shore of Lake Merritt, members of the Oakland League celebrated the organization’s centennial. Under strings of shimmering lights and a massive eucalyptus tree, generations of volunteers came together at the Camron-Stanford House to reaffirm their commitment to a city that is facing another consequential election cycle.

At long tables, dozens of members nibbled on appetizers while discussing recalls, affordable housing and the city’s budget deficit. Scattered on tables across the venue were voter registration forms and information on ballot measures, mixed with exhibits that highlighted significant events in the group’s history. There were newspaper clippings about the successful 1940s campaign for a milk ordinance that ensured quality standards, photos of the voter schools the group had held over the decades and flyers for events about refugees and government transparency.

The event was billed as a celebration, but there was a clear message beyond what finger foods and glasses of wine could tell. The League was using the milestone to promote its mission and recruit new members. 

Nationally, at more than 1 million members, the League of Women Voters has seen a steady decline in membership as new organizations focused on voter engagement have had more luck recruiting young members. The national trend has been reflected locally as well.

“Our membership, like that of many local Leagues, has gradually declined over recent years,” said Deborah Shefler, Oakland’s co-chair for voter service.

The local League’s 270 Members tend to be older, which Shefler partially attributes to the fact that younger women typically have less time to dedicate to volunteering.

Shefler said they have prioritized diversity and are committed to increasing membership over the next year. The organization often sees a membership bump in presidential election years. It also regularly engages with young people via internships and a program called YOUth Decide, which educates youth on the importance of voting and gets them registered.

The centennial event emphasized the continued relevance of the League’s mission.

First-term Oakland City Councilmembers Treva Reid and Janani Ramachandran were present. Current elected officials can’t be members, but Reid and Ramachandran were there in support.

“I am a living legacy of your 100 years,” said Reid, who was active with the League before her election in 2020.  

She called on the League to continue to keep the council and city government in check, saying Oaklanders still need it.

This year’s elections will be especially contentious, as both Mayor Sheng Thao and Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price are facing recalls. The League provides education about the effort but won’t be taking a side.

Nonpartisanship is its hallmark. The organization doesn’t endorse candidates, focusing instead on ensuring voters understand local ballot measures and candidate positions so they are prepared to make informed decisions. 

This year, the League will co-host candidate forums for every countywide office up for election and print easy voter guides in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. Vote411, a League website that serves as a one-stop shop for voter education, allows residents to enter their address and receive in-depth information on all of the issues and offices they will be asked to vote on.

“We think people should be educated voters,” Shefler said.

Passing the torch

The organization has an advocacy arm that analyzes local issues and oftentimes takes a stance. In the 1990s, for example, it pushed hard for the creation of a public ethics commission in Oakland.

“We’re really interested in things that have to do with government ethics, government accountability — do they actually do what they say they are going to do, transparency — can the public understand and have information about what government is doing,” Shefler said.

Though Oakland has changed drastically in the past century, many of the issues the original League prioritized have persisted. A 1926 organization chart from the group’s early years highlights issues like child welfare, living costs, legal status of women, better understanding among nations, immigration, new voters and efficiency in government.

In the 1930s, the organization conducted a four-year study that endorsed the council-manager form of government for Oakland, a structure that continues to this day. After World War II, the League held a series of lectures about the plight of European war refugees and the potential relaxation of immigration quotas. In the 1960s, it collected information on the new Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Complex proposal and distributed 10,000 copies of a report highlighting the findings. In that same decade, the League released a brochure that educated Oaklanders on new public housing proposals for low-income residents.

More recently, the League has held forums on such issues as mental health services for Alameda County children, Oakland’s budget and policy priorities, and the responsiveness of local officials.

But along with successes, there have been bumps and bruises.

The city’s Public Ethics Commission, for which the League is a vocal booster, has long struggled with staffing and resources. As a result, the City Council is deliberating on whether to add a slate of reforms to the November ballot that would alter the commission’s function.

The Ethics Commission recently launched an investigation into an alleged breach of campaign finance laws by former Mayor Libby Schaaf. She is a former League member and one of the organization’s noted participants in the centennial celebration pamphlet.

In addition, Democracy Dollars, a program the League championed to broaden voter contributions to campaigns, has been hamstrung by the city’s budget woes. Voters overwhelmingly supported it in 2022, but it has yet to be implemented. Shefler remains optimistic that the program — giving $25 vouchers for each registered voter to give to a candidate of their choice — will be at least partially funded in the future.

The League’s work in Oakland is far from done. For those gathered for the centennial on that blustery evening, the future was front of mind.

“We owe it to pass the torch to the next generation,” said Ernestine Nettles, soon to be the Oakland League’s first African-American president.

(Top photo: Oakland League of Women Voters’ centennial celebration, by Daniel Hennessy)

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