Meet the Volunteer Lobbyist Healing Political Divides in the Deep South
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because her moderate nature has helped net major wins.
When Lynn Teague was the repatriation coordinator at the Arizona State Museum, she had to navigate the competing interests of 21 Native American tribes and their sacred duty to the dead, and private landowners, which included developers and mining companies. It was Teague’s job as an archaeologist to thread a needle when it came to ownership of artifacts and access to burial grounds.
“I was often dealing with multiple claimants with varying degrees of willingness to work together,” says Teague, who held the post from 1987 to 2002.
If that doesn’t sound like her current mission in politics, what does?
Teague, 71, is the legislative lobbyist for the South Carolina League of Women Voters. In an era of fiercely opposed political tribes, the League’s soul is nonpartisan — and its good-government advocacy gets results.
In 2010, the League started exposing widespread irregularities in vote counting, which led the state to start hosting voter data online, a victory for transparency. Following the 2018 midterms, the League had the wherewithal and political standing to issue a blistering and fact-based report on the state’s antiquated voting machines, which, among other problems, counted votes incorrectly. The nine-year dive into voting data helped convince the state to shell out $51 million for new machines this year — at a time when dozens of states are not making critical voting machine updates ahead of the 2020 elections, according to a study by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.
“We brought this issue into the public eye like nobody has done before,” says Christe McCoy-Lawrence, the co-president of the League of Women Voters in South Carolina.
South Carolina has avoided some of the pitched battles over voting rights seen in its neighbor, Georgia. Teague credits the lack of voter roll purges to a nonpartisan state elections commission, but the League gets credit for joining the legal effort to block South Carolina’s restrictive voter ID law in 2012.
Still, the League can get hit by the mud. Some Republicans see the League as “closet Democrats.” Some Democrats see the League as shunning principles to get legislation with weak protections passed in a fiercely red state.
And they don’t always succeed. The League hounded the state elections commission earlier this year for “pure paper voting” but lost that fight, meaning a computer will still be used to read the paper ballots. If the new machines continue to malfunction and cause long lines — a form of voter suppression — Teague has vowed a fight.
It’s not that we don’t stand up for our principles, but we don’t rub it in people’s faces in a really obnoxious way.
Christe McCoy-Lawrence, co-president of the League of Women Voters in South Carolina
Legislators “know we never stop paying attention,” Teague says. There used to be a saying about the League — celebrating its 100th year, as it was born just before women’s suffrage — says co-president Holley Ulbrich, “that it just gave the man in the house one more vote.” She smiled wide as if to say that notion was shattered long ago.
There are a few Republican legislators in South Carolina who would like to suppress the vote, Teague says, but the extremists are being held off by the good judgment of Republican moderates. Teague has created a bond with moderates around the principle of counting every vote accurately. “South Carolina is probably the most transparent state in the country when it comes to election data,” says Duncan Buell, a nationally recognized expert on voter technology and a computer scientist at the University of South Carolina, pointing to the comprehensive vote audits he’s helped the League undertake since 2010.
Buell, in fact, was so taken by the mission that he even joined the group. (Yes, they take men). Buell says combative noisemakers could not have succeeded in building a coalition of Republicans and Democrats around the sanctity of the vote.
It goes beyond the ballot: The League has found common ground with Republicans and Democrats on the environment, utilities and ethics — from curbing “dark money” to a new law under which an independent commission investigates lawmakers of wrongdoing rather than their colleagues. “We try to keep our tone moderate, and Lynn is wonderful at this,” says McCoy-Lawrence. “It’s not that we don’t stand up for our principles, but we don’t rub it in people’s faces in a really obnoxious way.”
Teague, whose family is from the rural South Carolina towns Vance and Ellery, may be a retired archaeologist (she and her husband, George, moved back from Arizona a few years ago), but she is hardly retired. She is in the lobby every day during the state’s legislative session and works from home daily the rest of the year on legislative issues — the post she’s held since 2013 is entirely as a volunteer. Legislators “respect the fact that I’m there because I care about this stuff, and I care about South Carolina,” Teague says. “I don’t know how somebody could do what I do if I didn’t respect the state. It matters a lot to be from here.”
Teague is a lay Episcopal eucharistic minister, so she is comfortable among the state’s religious right. Her style is evenness. She leans forward to hear questions or points of view, and her responses are measured, not meant to provoke.
She does not talk about corporate interests buying votes, but rather “regulatory capture” of legislators who talk only to one side — and thus only trust one side. When she addresses gerrymandering, Teague says, “It’s not that we’re fighting the forces of evil out there. We’re fighting the forces of human nature” because politicians on both sides, alone in a room, draw their own boundaries to keep their seats.
Teague said the League’s biggest priority for the next two years will be fighting gerrymandering. Once again, she insists, the League is part of a broad push — not a power broker, but a facilitator.
In her scant spare time, Teague is a weaver, with a loom just off the living room in her home. It’s a fitting hobby, given her unusual ability to weave red and blue together each day.