Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport
As we find ourselves in the middle of another local election cycle, it is important to recognize our individual opportunities to get involved in local government. The League of Women Voters Greater Peoria (LWVGP) covers Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties and has long advocated for citizen involvement, good government and transparency. The League is a nonpartisan organization of men and women that promotes informed and active participation of the public on issues that may impact the community, as well as candidates running for office. We do not support any political party or specific candidates.
Improving Citizen Involvement
Citizen involvement is one of the major roles of the LWVGP. League members attend naturalization ceremonies throughout the year and register many new citizens to vote. We also regularly participate in voter registration opportunities at the Peoria Riverfront Market and other public gatherings in our communities.
Over the past four years, we have offered mock elections at local high schools in collaboration with the Peoria Election Commission. This is a great opportunity to engage young people who soon will be eligible to vote. We find that the students have many questions and appreciate the opportunity to become familiar with the voting process. While 2020 presented some difficulty in reaching out to high school students, our Voter Services Committee was able to collaborate with the Dunlap and Peoria Public Libraries to hold virtual sessions on how to register to vote.
With our local government election cycle coming up, this is a great time to maintain the voter engagement we saw in the November election. Education of the public on candidates and issues is an important part of the League’s mission. The League has a long history of holding forums for contested races for state and local office, and more recently has held virtual events in partnership with local public radio, libraries and public access cable.
On January 21, 2021, we partnered with Peoria Public Library and WCBU to present a mayoral forum that was streamed to our Facebook pages; and we are planning another prior to the General Election on April 6. In addition, surveys of all the candidates running in the City of Peoria district races are on the LWVGP website.
The League of Women Voters of Illinois (LWVIL) funds the Illinois Voter Guide at illinoisvoterguide.org, where voters can verify voter registration information, find their polling location, and see what offices will be on the ballot for the Consolidated Primary on February 23, 2021. Make a plan now for how you will cast your ballot: early voting, vote by mail, or vote on election day at your polling location.
Observing Local Government
Another way to get involved in local government is to attend a public meeting as an observer. Several of our League members are regular observers at meetings of election commission boards, city council or village boards, school and park boards, to name a few. A quick visit to the website of any local government body should list its elected or appointed members, meeting dates, agendas, prior meeting minutes, and guidelines to address the board, as well as Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) contact information. The League has held training sessions for reporting on these meetings and basic knowledge of FOIA and the Open Meetings Act (OMA). These member reports are posted in our newsletter and on our website. With the decline in local newspapers’ ability to cover open meetings, we have recently collaborated with the Community Word to share our reports.
A few years ago, League members, under the guidance of Rick Fox, reviewed the websites of many local government bodies to see how transparent they were and how easily one could find important information. The results were compiled, ranked and shared with local governments. While some were easy to navigate and find the desired information, some were lacking in areas such as: how to contact members or FOIA officers, OMA data not available (provide statutory requirements as to how and what must be provided to public), board packet information to be discussed, and how to address members.
The following year, a review of the same websites showed great improvement for many, but not all. With restrictions on public gatherings due to the novel coronavirus, it has been challenging for local government bodies to meet and ensure meetings are transparent and open to the public. League members have identified a few government meetings where OMA requirements for public attendance was not met. When this was brought to the individual board chairs, the response was timely to correct this situation, and websites were updated with information for citizens to attend virtually.
Advocacy on Issues
Lastly, advocacy is another important focus of the League. League members get monthly updates on LWVIL and bulletins for action on important issues. Contacting local, state or national legislators by phone, email or letter to express support for specific bills coming up for a vote is one way to advocate. Attending a Lobby Day in Springfield is an exciting event. In addition to meeting other advocates around the state, you may be able to meet with the legislator who represents you and establish a relationship with their office and staff.
As we entered a new year, the LWVGP continues to be challenged by the rules of social distancing, personal and public safety, but we are busy planning our programing for 2021 on a virtual basis and look forward to when we can gather safely. Check us out at lwvgp.org, on Facebook or meetup.com to find out what is going on—and get involved! PM
Connie Romanus is current president of the League of Women Voters Greater Peoria.