Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer
The Macon County Chapter of the League of Women Voters was established in the Spring of 1990 and within a year, the nonpartisan organization had more than 100 members. Fast forward 27 years and as of this year, the organization has disbanded.
Susan Ervin and Maethel Shindelman, co-coordinators of the group said that the conversation to dissolve began last year after both membership and attendance by the public to forums and meetings began to decline.
“We tried different times and places for meetings, but it didn’t seem to make much difference,” said Ervin. “We always got good press coverage of our meetings and this certainly helped to spread the information we were presenting, but it was discouraging to both the organization and to the presenters to not have many people present.”
The local league has always represented the same concerns, goals and issues as the national league which states:
“The League of Women Voters is a citizens’ organization that has fought since 1920 to improve our government and engage all citizens in the decisions that impact their lives. We operate at national, state and local levels through more than 800 state and local leagues, in all 50 states as well as in DC, the Virgin Islands and Hong Kong. Formed from the movement that secured the right to vote for women, the centerpiece of the League’s efforts remain to expand participation and give a voice to all Americans. We do this at all three levels of government, engaging in both broad educational efforts as well as advocacy. Our issues are grounded in our respected history of making democracy work for all citizens.”
The LWV is non-partisan but does have very clear positions on issues; and works, among other things, to strengthen and protect voters’ rights, women’s and children’s rights and civil rights in general; educate and engage citizens, advance social justice, reform campaign financing; encourage transparency in government; and protect the environment.
“Our local league has concentrated on bringing accurate information about local government, candidates, issues, activities and organizations to the public,” said Ervin and Shindelman. “Our most known events were our candidates’ forums. We held forums for local elections — county commissioners, town board and mayor, sheriff, school board, and also N.C. House and Senate. These forums were known for their fairness and for their calm, educational approach.”
This year’s municipal election came and went and without the LWV, the candidates had fewer opportunities to present themselves to voters. While community members organized public forums, they weren’t formal or accredited and had sparse attendance.
While political forums and candidate meet and greets were arguably what the local league was most well known for, the nonprofit held monthly meetings that touched on an array of topics of local concern.
“We also had monthly educational programs for many years on numerous topics including many local public service organizations and activities like social services, public education, public health, law enforcement, many aspects of county government, plus programs by nonprofits,” said Erivn. “For many years, we sent observers to county meetings, such as the county commission meetings and school board meetings, to keep abreast of what was happening in our community and to show that people were listening. We held voter registration drives, put out several publications including a Guide to Government in Macon County and sent out legislative action alerts and newsletters.”
Ervin said that the group tried to analyze why there was a decrease in interest with the organization but was unable to come to any final conclusion.
“We have several theories as to why this drop-off occurred but no final opinion,” said Ervin. “Our membership aged out and young people were not joining. That may be because they prefer to participate in activities other than meetings, even for community and political action. Also, although the league is non-partisan, we have very strong, progressive positions on issues. During the League’s long history, sometimes one party and sometimes another has been more representative of league issues. In these very partisan times, it may be that people prefer to put their energies into their own party rather than a non-partisan organization.”
The issue of membership in the LWV getting older and the younger generation not stepping in as generations have in the past isn’t something specific to the league. Macon County consists of dozens of volunteer organizations and boards that have trouble finding new members. For decades, members of the community became involved in these groups, but over the years there has been an age gap and a divide that continues to grow. From things such as volunteer firefighting to serving on county appointed boards such as the planning board, there are vacancies that cannot be filled because members have aged out and the next generation have shown little interest in taking responsibility for the needs.
County boards such as the Franklin Tourism Development Authority and the Macon County Board of Health have vacancies that have been ongoing with little interest from anyone to serve in that capacity. Service organizations like Rotary Club, The Lions Club or Kiwanis are constantly working to generate new membership, with the majority of their membership consisting of older adults who have served for years.