Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Defending Democracy & Empowering Voters

By Johannah Barry

On Feb. 17, the League of Women Voters of Falls Church will be commemorating the National League of Women Voter’s 99th birthday. We invite all members of the Falls Church community to join us in a lively celebration of this important anniversary, remembering above all the power of engagement and the basic and sacred right to vote. The core values of the League, education and engagement, are increasingly important in our contentious political world.

Voters want information on candidate positions, local referenda, and broader issues of national and international importance and look to the League as the reliable source for balanced, credible material on which to base their decisions at the ballot box. At the same time, the League is an activist, grassroots organization that believes citizens should play a critical role in advocacy and engagement. Is it possible to advocate a position while maintaining an apolitical stance? The League has almost 100 years of experience at creating and maintaining this very important balance and values its role as honest broker.

The League’s presence in Falls Church began on May 1, 1951, and since that time, members have been extraordinarily active in a range of issues surrounding the City and its residents. A League bulletin published in June 1951 proudly reported, “Since the April meeting, the League has sent out a candidates’ questionnaire, run a candidates’ meeting, held a Finance Drive, published a pamphlet on the Bond issues, attended the State Convention, sent a representative to the Citizen’ Advisory Committee on the Budget and put out numerous types of publicity.” Later that year, the League sponsored a four-session workshop on the School Budget.

“We bring local elections and community and national issues to the public arena.”

From that auspicious beginning, the League continued to address other pertinent issues in the City. The mid-‘50s saw the League deeply involved in integration in the public school system of Falls Church. The League maintained its position on integration in the face of strong interest in the dissolution of the public school system in Virginia and promoted local options on school attendance laws and tuition grants. The League urged that black students be automatically assigned to the City schools unless they specifically requested the opportunity to finish their education where they had been attending previously. The late ’60s saw the League undertaking a three-part study investigating fair housing, housing supply, and solutions to the affordable housing shortage. The League took a leading role in the community in pressing for a Fair Housing Ordinance and the establishment of a Fair Housing Commission.

Since that time, the League has grown in number and joins 14 Leagues in the Commonwealth of Virginia, working to ensure all voters’ voices are heard. The League has studiously maintained its apolitical stance, neither supporting nor opposing candidates or political parties at any level of government, but always working on vital issues of concern to members and the public. We bring local elections and community and national issues to the public arena, ensuring that all participants have an equal voice and platform to be heard. The local Falls Church League is encouraged by both the National League, the Virginia League, and the National Capital Area League to explore a range of issues that are of most immediate concern and relevance to local politics. There is no shortage of engaging and immediate topics!

Here in Falls Church, citizens have come to depend on the League’s Voter’s Guides and candidate forums. The League, often with other civic organizations such as the Village Preservation and Improvement Society, and with our neighboring Leagues in Arlington and Fairfax, sponsors popular issue forums where a range of speakers provide context to local issues and the public is encouraged to engage with local leaders. Recent examples include the role of money in politics, the right to work laws in Virginia, election integrity, school safety, and moderated discussions in the Oxford debate style regarding local bond initiatives.

In addition to voter registration this past fall, and a Spanish language edition of the Voter’s Guide available at all three polling places, League members also collected signatures for the OneVirginia2021 petition (redistricting reform in the Commonwealth). This issue crosses all party lines and seeks to ensure fair and equitable representation in precincts throughout the Commonwealth.

The League continues to engage a new generation of voters. It is the only League in the Commonwealth with an active unit at the high school level. In its inaugural year, the LWV- George Mason High School unit will be observing the legislative process in Richmond later this month and moderating a candidate forum on April 7.

The League also has been creative in its outreach, creating numerous opportunities for citizens to engage. Members of the Falls Church community have joined with League members for “Sips and Civility” at a number of local venues to play civics trivia games, write “get out the vote” postcards, and meet regularly over coffee in order to stay informed about state legislation and learn the basic tools of hands-on political activism.

Thoughtful and informed engagement in the political process is both a right and a privilege, critical to the survival of our democracy Please visit our website, my.lwv.org/virginia/falls-church, to join, contribute to and support our mission.

Johannah Barry is a member of the League of Women Voters of Falls Church’s management team and a former F.C. City Council member.