Our Story

A Message from the President

The following video is a brief introduction to the Lucy Burns Institute by Leslie Graves, LBI’s president. We invite you to take a moment to become better acquainted with our vision and mission by watching this video. It’s also a great place to get your questions answered about our flagship project, Ballotpedia, the digital encyclopedia of American politics and elections.

History

In late 2006, in an effort to gain a better understanding of local government activity, Wisconsin resident Leslie Graves filed a number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. She encountered several roadblocks along the way, including government officials who ignored her FOIA requests. Frustrated with how difficult it was to exercise her rights, Leslie wondered if perhaps other citizens had experienced similar obstacles. Leslie’s friends and family suggested that she create a resource devoted to helping citizens navigate the laws surrounding government transparency.

In December 2006, the Lucy Burns Institute was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in Madison, Wisconsin. Its first project was WikiFOIA, a collaborative, crowd-sourced approach to understanding state-level FOIA laws. The goal of WikiFOIA was to harness local knowledge in an effort to empower citizens seeking information from governmental entities.

WikiFOIA was a success, and it was clear there was a demand for efficient and straightforward information about political processes. Seeking to fill this need, the Lucy Burns Institute started two more online platforms. Ballotpedia was dedicated to sharing information about (a) statewide and local ballot measures and the laws governing them, and (b) state and local recall elections and the laws governing them. Judgepedia provided information on federal and state court judges, their appointments and elections, the intricate laws governing judicial selection, and state court judicial administration.

Over time, Ballotpedia expanded far beyond ballot measures and became known as an essential source for detailed, nonpartisan content on elected representatives, candidates, elections, official appointments, and initiatives and referendums at all levels of government, including municipal and school board coverage. Both Ballotpedia and Judgepedia had the same mission—to educate people about politics—so in March 2015, LBI merged its two flagship websites. All pages on Judgepedia were transferred to Ballotpedia in order to provide readers with a more fluid, user-friendly experience (Press release: Ballotpedia to absorb Judgepedia).

Why Lucy Burns?

The Institute is named in honor of Lucy Burns, a suffragette who helped to organize the National Woman’s Party in 1916. In her work to advocate the cause of “votes for women,” she organized, lobbied, wrote, edited, traveled, marched, spoke, rallied, and picketed. When she was eventually arrested for her activities, she led a hunger strike in prison and was ultimately force-fed. She knew that being able to participate in a democracy by voting was an essential way to express our human dignity. For this goal, she was willing to fight and suffer.

In a small way, we like to think our work carries on the spirit of Lucy Burns. In modern America, what can prevent people from fully engaging in today’s political process is when it is difficult to find accurate, comprehensive information about election laws, politicians, candidates and elections. LBI’s goal is to help solve that problem for all three branches of government, at all three levels of government.

More About Lucy Burns

Burns (1879-1966) was an American suffragist born to an Irish Catholic family in Brooklyn, New York.

Burns and Alice Paul co-founded the National Woman’s Party in 1916 after being ejected from the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) because of a difference of opinion about tactics for demanding change and exposing the injustice of the status quo.

Tired of President Woodrow Wilson’s passivity on suffrage, the tactic adopted by the National Woman’s Party was to send dozens of women to picket the White House in Washington, DC, beginning in January 1917, for eight hours a day, six days a week.

For their presumption, they were attacked by the White House, by male and female onlookers, and by the press–especially The New York Times.

Once the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Woodrow Wilson saw the opportunity to portray the picketers as unpatriotic and to shut down their campaign.

When Lucy Burns appeared on the picket line in July 1917 with a banner saying that Russian women had more freedom–they could vote–than American women, she and five others were arrested.

Altogether, Burns was arrested and jailed seven times—the most of any American suffragist. In prison, she was force-fed and possibly tortured. A historian recounts that force feeding Lucy Burns required “five people to hold her down, and when she refused to open her mouth, they shoved the feeding tube up her nostril.”

After American women gained the right to vote in 1920, Burns retired from political life. Returning to Brooklyn to live with her family, she went on to rear a newborn niece left motherless in 1923 by the death of Burns’s youngest sister in childbirth. Taking solace in her commitment to Roman Catholicism, she died in 1966 after a long decline.