BOSTON — VOTER participation in last fall's presidential election hit the lowest level in 64 years, and it's Nancy Neuman's job to worry about it. According to the League of Women Voters, only 25 percent of eligible voters in the United States gave President Bush his victory. ``And we're supposed to have representative government?'' asks Ms. Neuman, league president. ``It could get worse. ... We could end up with a demagogue.''
As leader of the 70-year-old league, Neuman is stationed on the front lines of the battle against the poor voter turnout confirmed this spring by the US Census Bureau. Masses of nonvoters, in addition to an outpouring of public support for the group's withdrawal of its sponsorship of the presidential candidate debates, have prompted the league to boost its voter-advocacy role on Capitol Hill.
Neuman, interviewed while in Boston to receive a public-service award, stressed the organization's chief goal of bringing Americans back to the voting booths. Yet the league is a ``multi-issue'' organization, she said, tackling topics such as child care, solid-waste disposal, and arms control.
Rumbling beneath the surface of the group's heavy agenda is a serious challenge facing all women's volunteer groups today: the need to adapt to working women's schedules. Neuman says many of the league's 1,200 local and state chapters are striving to adjust.
The most urgent task for Neuman at the moment is voting reform. She cites ``confusing and restrictive'' registration procedures as ``a major cause of voter discouragement'' during presidential elections. The League of Women Voters is an ardent supporter of a voter-registration reform bill now awaiting debate on the House floor, she says. If the bill passes, people will be able to register when they apply for or renew their driver's license, by mail, or at unemployment offices.
The league has also begun a special research project to determine whether there is any connection between campaign integrity and voter participation.
``For some people, nonvoting is a vote,'' while others do not vote because they are disengaged due to poverty, says Neuman. But ``what's going on with the people in between?'' She wants to find out ``how people are feeling, and if they are not voting because of the tone of the campaigns.'' There may be no connection, she adds, but that would be a useful conclusion, too.
In the 1970s and early '80s, league membership declined, ``largely because we helped open so many doors and opportunities for women ... that many of our members went off to other pursuits and didn't renew their membership,'' Neuman says. Today, with about 110,000 members (predominantly women), the group can no longer count solely on full-time volunteers, she says.
``Everybody seems busier than ever,'' Neuman remarks. Attracting new and younger members, many of whom work part or full time, is challenging. Women at home raising children ``feel a lot of pressure, too, because they end up ... volunteering in the library, where before there used to be lots of women doing that.''
Individual leagues, she says, are trying to be more sensitive to members' packed schedules. Instead of gathering at 2:30 in the afternoon, leagues are switching to lunch meetings or after-work meetings, Neuman says.
``I definitely think leagues are adapting, but it needs to continue,'' says Risa Nyman, president of the league's Massachusetts chapter. She says her organization shows local chapters how to divide their work differently or perhaps focus on fewer activities.
One member thinks the league could do more to attract and retain its women volunteers. ``Americans want to give time ... but time is something that has to be well used,'' says Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the American Association of University Women. She says that because the league works on a multitude of issues, it is less effective.
Neuman says it is easy for people to misunderstand the league's approach. But, she adds, ``it strengthens women to have them working on a broad range of issues.''