Once known for registering voters and educating the public about candidates and issues, the League of Women Voters has broadened its advocacy role in Florida, earning cheers from supporters and jeers from critics who say its left-leaning positions undermine its credibility.
Deirdre Macnab, the League’s Florida president, is unabashed about the nonpartisan group’s role in helping shape public policy.
Since she took the helm in 2009, the League has played a critical role in changing the way Florida’s legislative and congressional districts are drawn, won a lawsuit against the state over onerous voter registration requirements and this year helped undo a 2011 elections law Macnab and other critics dubbed the “voter suppression law.”
Some observers say the turning point for the state League was voters’ approval of the “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments forbidding legislators from crafting congressional and legislative districts that favor incumbents or political parties.
The League has pushed for fairness in redistricting for nearly 50 years, Macnab said. But the 2010 victory was seminal, she said.
“It was important for other citizens and elected officials to see that, with perseverance and coordination and determination, how powerful citizen engagement can be in affecting the political process,” Macnab said. “It had an inward but it also had an outward impact.”
The League’s involvement in the petition-gathering and advocacy for Fair Districts was followed by its lawsuits against the Legislature, one of which is still pending before the Florida Supreme Court. That has earned it the wrath of legislative leaders, including former House Speaker Dean Cannon, now a Tallahassee lobbyist.
“There’s nothing wrong with special interest groups having political agendas but they should not be disingenuous by their name or their rhetoric about what they stand for,” Cannon said. “If they called themselves the League of Left-Leaning Women Voters, that would be truth in advertising.”
But it may have been the Legislature itself that emboldened the state League.
In 2011, Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed into law an elections bill (HB 1355) passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature that shortened the number of early voting days and imposed restrictions on voter registration efforts by groups like the League, including hefty fines. The League sued the state over the voter registration portion of the 2011 bill and won.
Former GOP officials and a consultant said the shortened voting period was designed to make voting in 2012 harder for Democrats and minorities, who had helped boost Barack Obama to victory in Florida in 2008.
Apart from working to undo the 2011 election law during the legislative session that ended in May, the League last fall opposed all 11 constitutional amendments placed on the 2012 ballot by the Legislature and took part in defending three Supreme Court justices up for merit retention who were under attack from the right.
The League this spring also came out against an alimony bill passed by the Legislature that would have done away with lifetime alimony and alimony in most marriages that lasted less than 11 years. Scott vetoed the bill.
Macnab said the Legislature has engaged in a “grotesque overreach” of its authority over the past few years. She pointed to a failed effort by Cannon to overhaul the Florida Supreme Court. In pushing for those legislative changes, Cannon had argued that it was the Supreme Court that had overreached in striking down several of the Legislature’s proposed constitutional amendments.
Macnab seethes when speaking of how then-Speaker Cannon used taxpayer dollars to fight the Fair Districts amendments in court after the Supreme Court struck down a competing redistricting amendment from the Legislature.
The Legislature’s “grotesque, appalling ideas” motivated the League, Macnab said.
“The emperor is not wearing clothes. Somebody needs to call these ideas for what they are,” she said.
But the League’s recent history of aligning itself with liberal or left-leaning groups on issues is problematic, said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who said he was once a member of his local chapter.
The League “has a rich and wonderful history in our state and in the country,” Gaetz said. “But when you stake out positions that are predictably partisan, then I think the League is losing credibility.
“It’s become blindly predictable that the League acts as a beard or a front porch for the most liberal elements of the Democratic Party. It’s not wrong for the president of the League to do that as an individual but I think it’s wrong to drag the League of Women Voters into obviously shrill partisan politics.”
Macnab shrugged off the criticism.
“We have a long history of being on the cutting edge of issues and being criticized. That doesn’t disturb us at all,” she said. “When Susan B. Anthony was touring the country, often she had to have a sheriff on the stage with his guns drawn so she could finish her comments.”
Anthony led the fight for women’s right to vote during the 19th century, but she died 14 years before the founding of the League and the ratification of the 19th Amendment that let women vote, both of which occurred in 1920.
The League was born of the women’s suffrage movement, and League leaders say that advocacy is a tradition of the organization. It set up shop in Florida 74 years ago.
State board member Pamela Goodman, a former Palm Beach County League president, credits Macnab for giving the League a stronger voice in advocacy. The Palm Beach chapter has the second-highest membership in the state.
Goodman, who led the League’s redistricting efforts since 2007, says the League’s positions are based on years of in-depth research and analysis.
Mark Ferrulo, executive director of the left-leaning Progress Florida, who has worked with the League on a number of issues over the years, defended the League and said that it is nonpartisan.
“Anyone who would accuse them of being in bed with the liberal community doesn’t know what they’re talking about. When they’re in meetings with us, they want to focus on one thing and one thing only and that is what is the right policy for the people of Florida. They would get up and walk out of a room if someone started talking about how we can use this to influence an election,” he said.
For elections officials, the League is a mixed bag.
Polk County elections supervisor Lori Edwards, a Democrat and former state representative, said that recently the League has taken a more active role outside its traditional elections and voting purview.
“In the past, there were actually stated concerns among supervisors about aligning or partnering on any projects with the League of Women Voters because of the perception that they took stances on issues that were thought to be aligned with a party,” said Edwards, who took over as the president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections last month.
But Edwards said that the supervisors worked with the League this session on the elections bill, signed into law by Scott last month.
“We were able to find areas that both the supervisors and the League agreed were good for all voters and teamed up and worked together. So maybe that will soften things up,” she said.
But Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, a Republican, said he removed the League’s materials, along with other non-partisan groups’ as well as links to both political parties, from his website when he took over in 2007.
“Some supervisors partner with the League because they’ve been around forever and they’re very effective,” he said. “And there are some that say once they start taking advocacy positions on public policy, they’ve lost some of the sanctity of partnering with the supervisors.”
Macnab has no plans to step down from her policy soap box and instead is broadening the League’s reach.
That includes a top priority this year of persuading state lawmakers to expand Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for the poor, after the Florida House refused to go along with a plan backed by Scott and the Florida Senate that would have covered 1 million uninsured Floridians.
The League also is backing a proposed constitutional amendment that would require the state to spend more on land and water conservation.
Meanwhile, Macnab has hired a young staff and is modernizing the organization, which now has smartphone apps and a growing social media presence on Facebook and Twitter. She also has implemented “League University” on campuses, to get young people more involved.
And the group is offering kayaking outings and trips to Cuba coordinated by state board member Annie Betancourt, a former state representative from Miami. The Cuba trips — three last year and six this year — are meant to be educational and to strengthen ties with Cuban women’s groups and academics.
State membership, which has waxed and waned over the years, jumped 40 percent last year, Macnab said, one of the highest growth rates in the nation.
Asked what she wants her legacy will be, Macnab said, “It would be to create a very innovative, change-oriented organization that is willing to try new things in order to constantly ensure that the citizens’ voice has the highest impact and is engaged.”