League of Women Voters of the Hamptons co-presidents Estelle Gellman and Susan Wilson
League of Women Voters of the Hamptons co-presidents Estelle Gellman and Susan Wilson  |  photo courtesy LWVH

The League of Women Voters Looks To Deepen Its Bench

The League of Women Voters have seen an unprecedented wave of interest in getting involved with the process of elections in the past few years, which is a far cry from the long-complacent attitudes the public has had toward voting.

Dozens of people have expressed interest in forming a new North Fork chapter of the national non-partisan group, and the already robust League of Women Voters of the Hamptons is looking this fall to deepen its bench of talented people to take the lead on helping to engage the public in issues of concern to them.

“People used to say ‘I’m not going to vote. All those politicians are the same. It won’t make any difference.’ That has changed,” League of Women Voters of the Hamptons co-president Estelle Gellman told attendees at a LWV forum title “Make Your Voice Heard” at the East Hampton Library Sept. 17.

The South Fork chapter of The League has numerous committees working to put together public forums on topics ranging from health care to government, voting rights to the environment and education.

“We don’t support any particular candidate or any particular party,” said Ms. Gellman. “It’s important. We need credibility. We need to let the public know we’re fair and impartial. The leadership in our organization are not supposed to take public positions, but that doesn’t mean we don’t encourage people to get involved in the process. We encourage our members who are not in leadership positions to do that.”

And there’s a lot of non-partisan work to be done here. Ms. Gellman said New York’s voter position rate is often near the lowest in the nation.

“New York voting regulations are somewhat more inhibiting than other states,” she said. “In some states you can register that day, or there’s early voting. In New York, we do have absentee ballots but you have to have a reason. If you’re working two jobs and can’t make it to the polls, that’s not one of the reasons. If it’s a religious holiday for you, that’s not an option. No excuses absentee voting would make a difference.”

Ms. Gellman and her co-president, Susan Wilson, also gave a primer on how best to advocate for a position with public officials.

“Lots of people are attempting to speak up all over the country right now, and they haven’t thought it through. They don’t have a plan,” said Ms. Wilson. When you go to speak to an elected official, she said, “don’t go with a slogan. Be ready to back up any claims you are making. Make it personal. The words you chose and the volume and tone of your voice are very important. It’s fine to be passionate, but when you seem loud, fanatical, uncompromising, unreasonable or like a zealot, they will see you and hear you but they may not hear your message and they may dismiss you completely.”

Ms. Gellman reminded the crowd that it’s important to target the correct lawmaker, who has the ability to change public policy in an area you are concerned about.

“If you want to advocate for a position, you have to know who to advocate to,” she said. “Local boards — town board and village boards — make important decisions that affect your life every day. Go to meetings. If you’re going to speak to a particular legislator, find out where they stand on the issues. A personal visit is most effective. All representatives have local offices, and you can make a visit to local offices. The best time to see them is when the legislative session is not in effect.”

“A written note is 100 times more effective than an email,” she added.

The chairwomen of several of The League’s committees also shared information on projects they’ve been working on.

Government committee co-chair Cathy Peacock said her committee had spent a great deal of time delving into issues ranging from the creation of Peconic County to campaign finance reform, the prospect of a New York State Constitutional Convention and the possibility of East Hampton creating a town manager position after its financial debacle in the mid-2000s.

Her co-chair, Ann Sanford, added that the committee is always interested in having observers monitor the conduct of elected officials at public meetings, and has a keen interest in local issues ranging from workforce housing to tax assessments to an upcoming project to connect new commuter trains with “last mile” transportation options to get people to work on the South Fork.

“The summer commute from Hampton Bays to Southampton could go from 50 to 60 minutes to a 10 minute Long Island Rail Road train ride,” said Ms. Peacock, who is working on a meeting with Southampton Director of Public Transportation and Traffic Safety Tom Neely.

The League has a “small but very active” health committee, said its chairwoman, Valerie King, recently holding forums on South Fork health care, medical aid in dying and the proposed New York Health Act.

The committee is holding a meeting on mental health matters on Nov. 19 at 6 p.m. at the Parish Memorial Hall at Southampton Hospital.

Judi Roth and Terry Wildrith of the education committee said they “have a lot of fun coming up with ideas and carrying them out, including taking kids from school to the Suffolk County Legislature, where they met their legislators and then held a mock debate and vote on an issue in the legislative meeting room. They also ran a program called “Running and Winning,” inviting high school girls to a day-long session with elected women. The committee also works with local Girl Scout groups to help them get a patch for women’s suffrage.

The League’s very active natural resources committee is currently without a chair, after former Chairwoman Glorian Berk was appointed to the Southampton Town Planning Board, making her ineligible for a leadership role at The League. That committee has held public information meetings on topics ranging from offshore wind to agriculture and aquaculture, water safety, hydrofracking, and local issues ranging from the recent referendum on extending the Community Preservation Fund program, the Hills at East Quogue and garbage issues.

Barbara McClancy of the voter services committee said that that New York voter turnout is 49th out of the 50 states. To that end, The League is participating in National Voter Registration Day on Tuesday, Sept. 25, setting up voter registration tables in locations from Montauk to Westhampton.

The League will be holding at least two debates this fall. The first, between State Senator Kenneth LaValle and Gregory Fischer, and between State Assemblyman Fred Thiele and Patrick O’Connor will be held on Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. at the Hampton Bays Senior Center on Ponquogue Avenue.

The League’s debate between Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin and his Democratic challenger, Perry Gershon, will be held on Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. at Hampton Bays High School.

A debate is also in the works between candidates for a special election for a seat on the East Hampton Town Board.

To get involved with any of the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons efforts, call 631.324.4637 or visit lwvhamptons.org.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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