Beth Hendrix is right where she belongs.
The executive director of the League of Women Voters of Colorado grew up with activist roots, marching with labor leader and civil rights icon César Chávez and the United Farm Workers labor union in Los Angeles at a young age. Hendrix told Colorado Politics her early passion for social justice stems from two sources: she's a product of a "very liberal and politically active" Episcopalian church and, like Vice President Kamala Harris, experienced LA County's desegregation busing as a child. The latter experience, Hendrix said, made the United Farm Workers' strikes particularly meaningful.
"Growing up as a child of busing and as a White girl being a minority at my schools, it never crossed my mind that there was anything odd about that," she said. "I had a lot of Latino friends and still do, and it's just horrifying to me that people are treated differently for no reason at all."
After college, she began work at the Colorado Historical Society before bouncing around a number of organizations in the grant-making foundation space. The lightbulb moment for Hendrix came after tragedy struck while she was serving on the board of directors of the childcare center her children attended. A teenage aide was arrested for molesting children, prompting the center's license to be pulled and the resignation of its executive director.
"As board chair, I stepped in and tried to make sure that people who had been hurt got the care they needed and that questions were answered and people brought to justice," she said. "After that, I couldn't really go back to foundations. I wanted to be an executive director of a nonprofit — I wanted to be boots on the ground instead of funding the work."
That experience led her to the executive director role at Denver Sister Cities International, which was named the best sister city program in the nation within three years of her arrival, before taking the helm at the League of Women Voters of Colorado in December 2018. Hendrix said her current post feels like coming full circle, a return to her activist roots.
Colorado Politics recently caught up with her on her background, the state of Colorado's voting infrastructure and more:
Colorado Politics: For those who might not be familiar with the League of Women Voters, could you give a brief overview of your organization and your role within that organization?
Beth Hendrix: Nationally, the League of Women Voters was founded just before the ratification of the 19th Amendment to educate and prepare these newly-eligible voters for their responsibilities as full-fledged citizens, with the mission of empowering voters and defending democracy. The Colorado League of Women Voters was founded eight years later with the same mission and programs: registering and educating voters, offering nonpartisan information on issues to allow voters to be informed and confident participants in our democracy, and advocating for legislation that expands equity and access to the ballot.
As executive director, I am responsible for the advance, visibility and management of the organization.
CP: I’d love to know a bit more about your background. Tell me about your path to end up as LVW of Colorado’s executive director and what drew you to this line of work.
BH: I’ve been interested in justice and politics since I was a child, in part due to my attendance at a church active in social justice issues and in part due to direct witness to inequality, inequity and injustice growing up in Los Angeles. I moved to Colorado following college and worked for several years at the Colorado Historical Society, allowing me to learn about our state’s foundations. I then moved to working in grant-making foundations and funders of nonprofits for the next 18 years, which offered me the chance to gain strong knowledge of nonprofit and fundraising best practices while gaining insight on the multi-layered issues affecting our state. Then I directed Denver Sister Cities International, managing and administering Denver’s 13 international sister city relationships in collaboration with the Office of the Mayor for about five years before accepting the job as the first Executive Director of LWVCO.
CP: Let’s talk policy: There’s probably been more metaphorical ink spilled on the topic of election security in the past year than at any point in recent memory. How did Colorado’s “gold standard” election infrastructure hold up?
BH: Beautifully. Colorado has maintained its reputation as the safest state in which to cast a vote due to the hard work of a bipartisan group of heroes: our 64 county clerks and recorders; our current Secretary of State as well as the past several, notably Wayne Williams, who implemented many of Colorado’s processes following the 2013 passage of the Voter Access and Elections Modernization Act; the entire staff in the Office of the SOS; the huge bipartisan volunteer corps that acts as election judges; and the thousands of League members and our many partners who work to ensure that each and every eligible voter can vote safely and confidently; and the 85% of Colorado voters who fulfilled their civic duty. Coloradans can be confident in the accuracy of our voter rolls due to continual cross-checks with a number of systems that track address changes and deaths; the security of their ballot due to multiple measures and backups; and precise results due to tripartisan judging and audits.
CP: Could you point to some areas of improvement that you would like to see addressed?
BH: Colorado’s doing great but I’d like to see postage-paid ballot return envelopes, multilingual ballots for voter access, and the adoption of alternative voting methods including ranked-choice and approval voting. And while Colorado again does great in terms of voter turnout — 85% for the Nov. 2020 election — that’s still 15% of our voting population whose voices aren’t being heard, and that’s a real shame. We need to bring back voter confidence in our systems so that people believe that their vote was counted as it was cast and that every vote counts equally. And we need to be sure eligible voters know they’re eligible: people on parole in Colorado can vote! People in jail awaiting trial or serving time for a non-felony can vote! Volunteers from our Denver League went into a few Denver jails this past election to help almost 140 eligible voters cast their ballots — people who wouldn’t have voted otherwise.
Throughout the nation is another story entirely, as evidenced by suppressive new voter ID laws passed in Georgia the other day. We need the elimination of partisan gerrymandering at the federal level and in each and every state and county. Restrictive ID requirements only keep vulnerable people from voting rather than eliminate nonexistent fraud. Reducing access to mail voting just hurts those with mobility, transportation, and time issues. All eligible voters should be able to vote easily and safely.
CP: After a short pause, the General Assembly is starting to get rolling. Can you highlight any or a couple pieces of legislation that have caught your eye so far?
BH: Yes -- there are a few election reform bills, including one submitted by the SOS to combat foreign influence in politics, one promoting ranked-choice voting in nonpartisan elections, and a bill allowing multilingual ballots. Our Legislative Action Committee, LWVCO’s volunteer lobbying corps, is tracking legislation regarding affordable housing, immigration, education, the environment and more, as well as all legislation relating to elections and voting.
Outside of the General Assembly, we’re monitoring the work of our new independent redistricting commissions, as well as the investigations into the disturbing allegations coming out of the Colorado judiciary.
CP: Let’s go up one level of government. What’s going on in Congress that has the League’s attention?
BH: The For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act must be passed to increase voter access and strengthen our democracy. We’re advocating for statehood for the District of Columbia to finally allow DC residents proper representation, as they’re being taxed like everyone else. And we’re advocating for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
CP: What’s the biggest challenge you see facing Colorado and the United States generally?
BH: I believe the biggest challenge facing Colorado and the United States is the necessary and long-overdue dismantling of systems built on the ideology of white supremacy, and the rebuilding of those systems as equitable, justice-based, and inclusive. To do this, we must first come to the collective recognition of the unfair foundations which have allowed many of us to benefit generation after generation while actively disallowing others basic opportunities. To quote a favorite League benefactor, ‘life is not a zero-sum game’ -- opportunity expands when shared and a rising tide lifts all boats.
CP: Can you highlight a trend, positive or negative, that you think deserves a little more attention?
BH: Any effort at voter suppression must be eliminated, including gerrymandering at all levels. Our government should represent the will of the people, and when voices are silenced, that representation is lost and our elected officials speak for themselves rather than for their constituents. A country created by the people, for the people, and of the people should listen to and value each and every resident.
On a positive note, I’m excited to see more women and women of color elected to Congress and state legislatures, continuing to work to shatter that glass ceiling. Our League in Montrose is promoting the idea of ignoring the aisle at the Capitol, asking that legislators of differing parties sit together to promote civil discourse and the recognition of our common desire for the success of Colorado and her people; I really hope this simple idea can make a difference in the ability to work together while decreasing the vitriol that exists.