Generally, the League of Women Voters isn't perceived as a great threat to anybody. The 91-year-old group, which was born out of the campaign for women's suffrage, is best known for sponsoring candidate debates and providing the candidates' position on issues to voters.
"We don't care who people vote for, we just want people to know the candidates, to know the issues and to vote," says Melanie Ramey, president of the Wisconsin League.
And yet, Ramey's organization takes strong positions on a number of hot-button political issues. The Dane County chapter, for instance, has put out position papers in support of mandatory sick leave for employees, alternatives to incarceration for juvenile delinquents, and the conservation of natural resources. At the national level, the League is a vocal proponent of abortion rights and immigration reform.
The League's activism does not stop with position papers, however. Last week the Wisconsin chapter filed a lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court alleging that the new Voter ID law violates voter protections enshrined in the state constitution.
According to Andrea Kaminski, the executive director of the statewide League, the constitution specifies only two groups of people who can be denied the right to vote - felons still serving their sentences (in prison or on probation) or people deemed by a judge to be mentally incompetent.
"In passing this law, the Legislature created a third group of disenfranchised voters," she says. "We know that [Voter ID] places a heavier burden on the elderly, low-income people, people of color and students. If my house were to burn down the night before an election, I could lose my right to vote along with everything else."
Ramey emphasizes that the League operates independently of all other political groups, and only takes positions after an exhaustive period of research into an issue. A League chapter must vote to study an issue, and positions are adopted only after chapter members reach consensus on certain points.
"Any stand that we take we've studied. For instance, our whole position on health care was developed in 1980," Ramey says. "We are very careful about who we collaborate with."
State Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), one of the Legislature's most outspoken conservatives, says the League's tradition of nonpartisanship has long since passed.
"For at least the last 25 years the League of Women Voters has been the handmaiden of the left," he says. "At any of their debates you can be sure the questions they ask are the ones Democrats want asked."
Mike McCabe, president of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan group that advocates for campaign finance reform, says the League is an unfair target of such criticism. "[The League's] mission is not liberal or conservative, Republican or Democratic," he says. "Attacks on the League for its work in opposition to the recent push to suppress voter participation undoubtedly have a partisan motivation."
Although Kaminski touts the ideological diversity within her group, she admits there are few members who would voice the suspicion of government that one often finds at a tea party rally. "We don't have libertarians usually because we really believe in government," she explains.
Nevertheless, Kaminski points out that her organization has drawn the ire of both Republicans and Democrats.
Earlier this year, for instance, the League's national organization ran ads attacking U.S. Sens. Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican, and Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, for their votes against carbon dioxide restrictions.
"Scott Brown should protect the people, not the polluters," the announcer says after the screen shows a montage of asthmatic children, coughing or hooked up to oxygen tanks.
The ads provoked strife among League members, says Kaminski. "Some members thought they should never [run attack ads] because how can we ever hope to have candidates participate in our debates if they think we're going to attack them?"
Kaminski says that negative ads make her uncomfortable but that she is not personally opposed to them, as long as the information presented is accurate and is not perceived as partisan. Indeed, in this case, the League's attacks were bipartisan, since the two targets are associated with different parties.
Additionally, neither Brown nor McCaskill was running for reelection this year, Kaminski points out. Hence, the goal of the ads is best interpreted as advancing public policy, rather than supporting or opposing a politician.
"We would never be putting money into a candidate campaign, and we'd avoid talking about somebody running for office," she says of the Wisconsin chapter.
Of course, there is another reason we won't be seeing those kinds of ads from the League in Wisconsin. "We just don't have that kind of money," says Kaminski.
The little money the League does have largely comes from grants from other nonprofits, member dues ($30-$70 a year, depending on the local chapter) and revenue from events. This year, much of that money will go toward the lawsuit to pay attorneys, legal fees and other associated costs.
Although the state League has been a party in lawsuits before, the Voter ID suit is the first court case in which the organization is the sole plaintiff since Kaminski took over the group in 2004.
Kaminski says it is only logical that the group founded for the purpose of expanding voting rights would be leading the fight against laws that may discourage voting. "We have opposed Voter ID as a measure that is restrictive, unfair and very expensive to implement," she says. "We have always held the right to vote to be very dear."
[Editor's note: This article has been corrected to note that Melanie Ramey is the president of the Wisconsin League of Women Voters, not the Dane County chapter, and that Andrea Kaminiski is executive director of the state organization.]