By Ron Hayes
When the League of Women Voters was founded in Chicago on Valentine’s Day 1920, women couldn’t vote.
Six more months would have to pass before the U.S. Constitution caught up with them.
Last year, both the 19th Amendment and the league marked its centenary, and this year began with the Palm Beach County chapter celebrating its distinction as the largest of the league’s more than 750 chapters.
“I can confirm that as of January 2021, the League of Women Voters of Palm Beach County currently has the largest membership of any league in the country,” reports Sarah Courtney of the nonprofit organization’s national office in Washington, D.C.
“Our largest leagues by membership are geographically diverse and include St. Louis, Missouri; Austin, Texas; Cleveland, Ohio; San Diego, California; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”
She declined to provide membership numbers for other chapters. But after competing with California chapters off and on for years, Palm Beach County has pulled ahead.
“It’s a moving target,” says Darlene Kostrub, the county’s membership director, “but at this moment we have 662 Palm Beach County members.”
Originally, the league admitted only women, in line with its initial mission to educate those newly enfranchised voters, but that policy was changed in 1973, two years before the Palm Beach County chapter was founded.
“Today, I’d say about 15-20 percent of our members are male,” Kostrub says.
The county’s league is one of 29 state chapters from the Panhandle to the Keys.
“It’s a great honor that our state is home to the largest local League of Women Voters in the nation,” said Patricia Bingham, the state board president. “We commend the leaders of Palm Beach for their phenomenal recruitment and retention work.”
Local league President Ken Thomas attributes the chapter’s growth in part to its work attracting younger members.
“We have a very active committee called the Young Leaguers who reach out to circles that aren’t our traditional demographic,” he said.
During last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations in West Palm Beach, for example, league members registering new voters were also able to add members by highlighting a new outreach that offers free membership to students between 16 and 26.
“A lot of these people who were peacefully protesting were interested in civic engagement and saw the league as a legacy organization with a history of doing this work,” Thomas said.
Kostrub, the membership director, estimates about 60 local members are students, some still in high school, but most are college students.
Another factor in the league’s healthy growth, Thomas said, is its commitment to remaining resolutely nonpartisan.
“People say we don’t endorse candidates,” he said, “but I like to reinforce that we don’t oppose any candidates, either. We don’t endorse or oppose.”
On Feb. 11, the league hosted its first virtual candidates forum, with an audience watching by Zoom as Delray Beach City Commission candidates discussed the issues at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church.
When the league realized not all the candidates could sit socially distanced on the chancel, seating for all was moved to the floor level to avoid any perception of favoritism by having them seated on two levels.
“We don’t only say we’re nonpartisan,” Thomas said, “we actively strive to appear nonpartisan in the way we conduct ourselves.”
While the league is nonpartisan, however, it is not apolitical. Statewide, it has vigorously fought for and against political policies. In 2019, state league chapters went to court to fight Senate Bill 7066, which would require ex-felons to pay off all financial obligations before they could vote, and last year, working with the ACLU, Florida members contacted more than 100,000 former felons to encourage them to register and vote.
Locally, the chapter’s website touts its commitment to reproductive rights, gun safety and immigration reform.
But regardless of any candidate’s position on controversial issues, all are invited to participate in the forums, and in Palm Beach County, the results are clearly effective.
“Our goal is to have 700 members,” Kostrub said.