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November 16, 2012

Nonpartisan group strives for civil tone in politics

League of Women Voters Oakland Area promotes dialogue

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

There was a lot of noise during an election season full of vitriol and mudslinging. Now the dust has settled, the signs have come down and the back-to-back campaign ads have stopped airing — but the country is as divided as ever.

Through it all, one group has tried to keep a civil tone, exploring the issues in balanced, nonpartisan fashion — and encouraging voters to not just talk, but also listen.

A national, state and local organization, the League of Women Voters first formed in 1920, when women achieved suffrage. Statewide, there are about 1,500 members; for the Oakland Area division, they number about 170. Only women were allowed as members until 1975.

For nearly a century now, their message has been the same: An electorate that is both educated and involved is key to a working democracy.

They work to achieve this in a number of ways, such as candidate forums, educational presentations and voter guides. While the League ultimately takes a stance on different issues as decided by membership consensus, their voter services are unbiased and adhere to strict rules and regulations that honor all sides equally.  

In October, for example, the LWVOA hosted a candidate forum for the 9th congressional district, featuring Sander Levin, Don Volaric, Jim Fulner, Les Townsend and Julia Williams. Right from the start, the moderator established certain ground rules: candidates cannot interrupt each other and can only address their view of the issues — no personal attacks or statements involving the other candidates’ views were allowed.

At several points during the night, various candidates broke the rules, criticizing their opponents. At another point, the audience laughed derisively at one candidate’s beliefs. In all cases, the moderator immediately chastised the offenders, putting the kibosh on incivility. The moderator even warned she would end the forum right then and there, if people didn’t start behaving — and everyone knew she was serious.

There are other rules, as well, such as keeping campaign literature outside of the forum room and not allowing audio or video from the forum for commercial advertising. It’s all with the goal of avoiding a political circus, keeping the focus firmly on the issues.

A real, meaningful dialogue is increasingly difficult to have in the country, observed Judy Bateman, an LWVOA member who coordinates the candidate forums with fellow League member Jerry Burden.

“There’s a mood (of divisiveness) in our country that is so terrible, and we thought it would get better, but it’s gotten worse,” Bateman said. “Our tone, when we have a forum, is one of respect.”

Each forum takes a lot of work to arrange. League members study the candidate filings and target highly contested races, where they feel there’s a chance someone new can win. At first, Bateman was reluctant to set up the 9th District debate, feeling that Levin was too entrenched to merit one. But then the Volaric campaign called her and urged her to reconsider, noting the redistricting included many swing-vote conservatives.

Once the League knows which races they want to cover, it’s a matter of finding a date, time and venue for the event, as well as a cable crew to help bring it to the masses.

All of the candidates are given a copy of the ground rules. Occasionally, some candidates will decline, fearing they’ll be attacked, but the League assures them they will be treated with fairness and respect, and that often gets them back on board. 

“Community organizations like the work we do at the forum because they know we’ll be impartial and we won’t stand for personal attacks. They usually call us — we don’t have to call them,” said Mary Ann Barkach, LWVOA president. “I have always admired League members because they do always try to present the facts in an impartial way, and they always strive to be civil.”

This year, the LWVOA arranged seven judicial forums for circuit and district courts, co-sponsoring with the Oakland County Bar Association and the Detroit Free Press. The league also held nine forums for the primary and 10 for the general election, which included state representative, county commission, school board, city, congressional and township elections.

The League also conducts informational meetings open to the public, which in the past have featured such topics as white slavery, immigration reform, healthcare, Asian carp, water quality and redistricting. The League recently studied prison reform, privatization and the role of the federal government in education, and solicited the feedback of several groups in evaluating the pros and cons of the six state proposals.

Voter registration events were also held at Oakland Community College campuses, local high schools and more. As always, League-made voter guides were made available online and at all city halls and libraries in Oakland County. The Taubman Group provided money for the printed version, and a similar state voter guide, covering only statewide races, was also made available. 

It all comes down to helping people make an informed decision and exploring the issues, while setting a constructive tone at a time when the country is deeply polarized.

“We’d like people to respect the other person’s point of view, and if you are going to disagree, don’t jump at them like a lion,” Bateman said. “We have to start disagreeing civilly, in a low voice. And everyone has to take the time to listen — just listen.”

For more information about the League of Women Voters Oakland Area, visit their website at www.lwvoa.org/contact.html.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.