Nonpartisan voting rights organizations confront mounting challenges

BRANCHING OUT: Local chapters of the League of Women Voters have expanded their outreach in recent years, including having booths at the Asheville Hemp Fest. Photo courtesy of LWV Asheville-Buncombe County

When it comes to voting rights, Ron Katz leaves nothing to chance.

For nearly 20 years, the Asheville resident has been a registered independent voter so that his work as the facilitator of the WNC Nonpartisan Voting Group and board member of Carolina Jews for Justice can’t be called into question.

“We bend over backwards to be nonpartisan,” Katz says. “Someone can go into the North Carolina voter search page to find out my affiliation. I don’t want anybody to get the impression that I’m speaking in support of a political party, nor am I speaking in support of or representing a particular organization.”

Such transparency is critical for nonpartisan voting rights and education nonprofits, which Katz notes are often villainized by groups seeking to undermine election integrity. While he says voting rights used to be a nonpartisan issue, it’s increasingly interpreted as a left-wing cause.

“And that is an unfair characterization, just like it’s unfair to say that there is a substantial amount of voter fraud and that elections are rigged towards one political party,” he says. “But unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and sometimes that is the only information that some people have, and so they have some issues with that.”

To help combat misinformation and to be a source for unbiased data, Katz launched a free e-newsletter in 2017 and typically sends out new editions twice a month. “I don’t know all the answers but the key for me is to connect people to groups that do have the answers,” he says.

Katz takes a similar approach with the WNC Nonpartisan Voting Group, bringing together people who are affiliated with nonpartisan groups in Western North Carolina, as well as some statewide organizations that don’t have a presence in WNC. They meet monthly to talk about ways that they can better understand what each group is doing.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and our goal is not to unnecessarily duplicate,” he says. “Our goal is also not to add work to anybody — because we’ve got plenty to do — but to support each other. It’s really a way to build relationships, and that’s key for us. Not just relationships but trusting relationships.”

Major leagues

Among the organizations that Katz works with in the WNC Nonpartisan Voting Group are the local chapters of the League of Women Voters. Suzanne Fisher, president of the Asheville-Buncombe County contingency, describes her organization as “a fiercely nonpartisan and nonprofit organization” with 501(c)(3) designation.

“We want to be viewed as a trusted neutral party that can be relied on for accurate and objective information. We are not beholden to any political party or political action committee. Even when candidates and/or parties support issues that we do, we never endorse either,” Fisher says. “We are nonprofit because we do not want to answer to investors as to why our activities are not generating revenue. We can focus on our mission and not worry about making a profit.”

Being part of an extended network also helps these efforts. Fisher notes that LWVABC maintains active partnerships with other league chapters, particularly Henderson County and Catawba Valley. And it has a 501(c)(4) component, granting it tax exemption as a social welfare organization, as do LWV’s North Carolina and national iterations. According to Katz, such designations further differentiate these organizations from their profit-minded counterparts.

“I think the for-profit groups imply that they’re doing this because they’re looking for a specific outcome — and I’m not sure that there’s any for-profit nonpartisan groups out there. I think they’re mostly partisan,” Katz says. “And we do have an outcome: It’s not that one candidate gets elected over another. It’s that everybody who is eligible has the opportunity to participate with as little impediment as possible.”

A challenge of being nonpartisan is that LWVABC has to be extremely careful in deciding which organizations to partner with, making sure that they share the same definition of “nonpartisan” — which also extends to not opposing any candidates.

“However, we are political in that we take positions on selected governmental and other issues after study and consensus,” says Brenda J. Sherrer, president of LWV’s Henderson County chapter. “Our league recognizes the role of political parties in government and believes that participation in the activities of parties is an essential ingredient of citizen responsibility. But while we urge our members to be politically active, certain constraints are necessary to maintain nonpartisanship of the league as an organization.”

While the chapters operate from their specific counties, they extend far beyond what their names suggest. In particular, Fisher says LWVABC’s moniker is historic but not completely descriptive in that the group welcomes everyone as members, not just Buncombe County women, and has participants in Cherokee, Jackson, Madison, Haywood and McDowell counties.

This expanded membership has proved essential as LWVABC has increased its voter registration and education efforts in recent years. Along with having a table at new events, such as the Asheville Hemp Festival in late April, the group is broadening its scope to providing voter information in Spanish and Russian, and increasing its presence on social media platforms.

Statewide support

In addition to these efforts, the local LWV chapters have expanded their collaborations, working with such fellow nonpartisan nonprofits as the Carter Center and Common Cause North Carolina. Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause NC, notes that the state chapter has its roots in Western North Carolina going back 50 years and that some of its most active members continue to be in WNC.

“Over the decades, we’ve worked to protect the freedom to vote for all North Carolinians, counter the corrosive influence of money in politics and demand transparency at every level of government,” Phillips says. “We’ve fought to end gerrymandering, including when Asheville was split by unconstitutionally gerrymandered congressional districts. And our effort to establish lasting, nonpartisan redistricting reform continues today. Above all, we’re working to create an inclusive, multiracial democracy where everyone has a voice.”

Phillips adds that in recent years, and certainly since the 2020 election, there has been “a rise in attempts by self-serving politicians and anti-voter extremists to unfairly restrict access to the ballot box.” He and his colleagues also have witnessed a sharp increase in politicians “spreading dangerous misinformation and trying to sow unfounded distrust in our elections.”

“In turn, we and our fellow pro-democracy partners have increased our efforts to combat that misinformation by providing reliable facts to the public,” he says. “We’ve also ramped up our nonpartisan election protection work with our grassroots volunteers to ensure the rights of all voters are respected at the polls.”

Furthermore, Phillips notes that Common Cause NC has strengthened its work inside the halls of government, providing data to lawmakers showing that voters across the political spectrum benefit from robust access to the polls, including early voting, same-day voter registration and voting absentee by mail.

“We use truth to counter political operatives who are trying to dismantle voting access through their distorted misinformation,” he says. “But we know that fight will continue into 2024 and beyond.”

Over the past decade, Phillips points to historic victories against gerrymandering in North Carolina and growing support for redistricting reform among the public. An increase in North Carolinians, regardless of political party, using early voting and same-day registration likewise has him optimistic that Common Cause’s work is making a difference and can withstand “the baseless attacks on our elections by anti-democracy extremists.”

“I’m also hopeful because of the young people we meet,” Phillips says. “We’re privileged to work with college students around the state, including at all 10 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in North Carolina. Seeing these outstanding students advocating at the legislature, leading marches to the polls and boldly speaking out for the issues they care about makes me confident in our future. We’ll be in good hands with the rising generation.”


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.