OBA PUBLIC SERVICE AWARD: League of Women Voters of Greater Omaha Strives to Educate


Dianne Bystrom, co-president of the Omaha chapter of the League of Women Voters, poses for a portrait with a banner depicting suffragist Amelia Bloomer on April 16, 2020. (Courtesy Nebraska League of Women Voters)
By 
Molly Ashford
The Daily Record

The Omaha Bar Association’s choice for its community-minded Public Service Award is a true reflection of this year’s Law Day theme, reflecting the centennial of the 19th Amendment.

The 2020 OBA Public Service Award was presented to the Nebraska chapter of the League of Women Voters, an organization rooted in the fight for women’s suffrage in the Cornhusker State.

In its modernity, the league focuses the majority of its advocacy on registering and educating voters. It is the execution of these efforts in the greater Omaha area that gained the OBA’s attention.

“The League of Women Voters wants voters and potential voters to be as educated as possible when they go into the voting booth, and that is critically important,” OBA Executive Director Dave Sommers said. “They truly exemplify everything about the Public Service Award in terms of educating the public – it may even be overdue that we give them this recognition.”

The national League of Women Voters was established Feb. 14, 1920, just six months prior to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, by members of the dissolving National American Woman Suffrage Association, which had achieved its stated goal.

Nebraska’s chapter was founded June 15, 1920, at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha following a joint meeting with the Nebraska Woman Suffrage Association, according to a history by Ruth Godfrey Donovan for History Nebraska.

Dianne Bystrom, co-president of Omaha’s league, says that education is a crucial part of the organization’s mission. Bystrom has been an active member since 1995 and retired as the director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, whereupon she relocated to her home state and joined the local league.

“Our biggest mission is educating citizens and getting them to vote,” Bystrom said. “We have a very big presence with voter registration.”

Among the league’s most notable voter education efforts is the statewide expansion of Vote411, an online database providing personalized ballot information and voters’ guides to users based on their location, Bystrom said. The digital platform builds on a long-standing practice of providing voters with comprehensive information about candidates.

“The League of Women Voters of Nebraska, particularly the Omaha league, has published a printed voters’ guide for more than 50 years,” she said. “It’s a nonpartisan guide where candidates in both primary and general elections are asked a set of questions that are then published for the public.”

Douglas County has had access to personalized ballot information via Vote411 for nearly a decade, but the service was limited to information about federal races for many less populated counties. In 2020, both the national and state groups stepped up efforts to educate people in rural areas.

“We put more money into Vote411 and expanded it to all 92 (other) counties in Nebraska so that all of those counties can have the same information that Douglas County had in the past,” she said.

With the increased funding, Douglas County’s response rate from candidates jumped to 71%, while response rates from other counties in Nebraska sat at 54%. For a first-time effort, this rate is “very high,” Bystrom said.

Along with educational efforts, the League of Women Voters has historically focused on registering new voters. In a typical election year, league members register voters at community events, high schools and naturalization ceremonies. However, 2020 is far from a typical election year.

The novel coronavirus has shut down community gatherings and schools, greatly hampering voter registration efforts everywhere.

“Typically, at this time of year, we would be doing a ton of voter registration,” Bystrom said in a video produced for the OBA. “As a league, we’ve really been pushing vote-by-mail.”

Despite the chaos, Nebraska is set to have a relatively high primary turnout – thanks in part to over 413,000 mail-in ballots that have been sent to Nebraskans for the May primary. Voting by mail is an essential part of the state League of Women Voters’ voter outreach plan this year.

“We’re really trying to make sure that people are completing the mass vote-by-mail applications that have been sent out all across the state so that they can continue to exercise their right to vote,” said Toni Monette, who directs statewide and local voting rights efforts.

The context of the work that the league does has changed over its 100-year history, but the scope has not. The women who run Nebraska’s league remain committed to ensuring that voters from all backgrounds are well-educated and prepared to vote.

“Women being involved with voting rights at the time that the 19th Amendment was passed was important to pass that legislation,” Monette said. “But even going forward, understanding inequalities and determining how we can collaborate and work together to address those gaps is essential.”

Find candidate information via Vote411 at vote411.org/nebraska.

 Learn more about the League of Women Voters at lwv-ne.org.

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