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League of Women Voters draws critics for nonvoting work

TALLAHASSEE — It might be nonpartisan and have “voters” in its name, but the League of Women Voters of Florida also increasingly tackles politically charged issues outside of elections.

Recently, the 75-year-old organization has advocated for Medicaid expansion, organized visits to Cuba and opposed private school voucher expansion.

It’s a progressive agenda at first blush, though league president Deirdre Macnab is quick to note that Medicaid expansion, for example, has the support of Sen. Rene Garcia, a conservative Hialeah Republican.

The group’s website says the organization’s work is “strictly nonpartisan; we neither support nor oppose candidates for office at any level of government.”

At the same time, the site says, “the League is wholeheartedly political and works to influence policy through advocacy.”

Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political science professor and Florida politics expert, noted the group has been active on a number of traditionally liberal causes.

“On the left-right continuum, you could certainly say they’re to the left of the Republicans who control the Legislature,” he said.

The league opposed a Republican-driven election law overhaul in 2011 that reduced early voting time, cracked down on voter-registration groups and made voters use provisional ballots if they updated their name or address at the polling place.

Those changes and others were blamed for contributing to confusion and long lines at the polls in the following year’s election.

Lawmakers later undid some of the changes, with House Speaker Will Weatherford saying the Legislature bore some responsibility for the election-day foul-ups.

Macnab says her organization’s interests aren’t straying from its mission.

“We have done that all through our history – on environment, children’s issues, education,” she said. “We opposed drilling off the coast. We are a multi-issue organization, but voting rights is very central.”

The League of Women Voters was founded in 1920 during the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, according to its website.

That meeting was held six months before ratification of the Constitution’s 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote. The Florida chapter was organized in 1939.

The Republican Party of Florida doesn’t take a position on the state league’s initiatives.

“We’re focused on the governor’s budget and the $500 million in tax cuts because tax cuts create jobs,” party spokeswoman Susan Hepworth said. “The No. 1 issue is jobs and, secondly, education. That’s what’s important.”

But the league’s work in Cuba has piqued the ire of a Miami Herald columnist and a Florida conservative blogger, who called them the “travel agency for the Castro regime.”

In September, the Herald’s Fabiola Santiago took the league to task for working with the Federación de Mújeres Cubana, the Cuban government’s official women’s organization.

“That an American organization with the word ‘voters’ in its name is ‘sisters’ with an organization crucial to maintaining a dictatorship and helping quash any chance of a democratic vote in Cuba is outrageous enough in itself,” Santiago wrote.

Christian Cámara, the son of Cuban exiles, writes the “Reaganista” blog. He has taken issue with what he called the league’s “‘delegation trips’ to the Communist island since 2011 after (President Barack) Obama legalized so-called ‘person-to-person’ travel.”

“Missing were pictures of dilapidated buildings, gulags, empty grocery store shelves, beaten dissidents, ration cards and food lines,” Cámara wrote in December. “I guess the tour guides didn’t take them to where the regular natives live.

“Every organized ‘person-to-person’ interaction is decided by the regime,” he added. “There is no time set aside for delegates to meet with struggling everyday Cubans or anyone who is actually fighting for voting rights–and human rights, and civil rights, and women’s rights.”

Macnab took to the blog’s comment section, the same day the post appeared, to defend the visits.

“The league believes that communication is the first step to greater understanding and expanding freedom,” she wrote.

The group “sent delegations to other countries in the Middle East and South America. Of course, there were those that criticized that effort at the time as well,” Macnab said.

“We are not … seeking either to undermine the current Cuban government or to promote American democracy,” she added. “Our mission is simple: promote understanding and open channels of communication between our peoples.”

Jewett said the League, by necessity, has been ideological from its inception.

“Fighting for women’s right to vote was a progressive issue,” he said. “So their formation itself was for a progressive cause.”

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