League of Women Voters of La Plata County evolving with the times

Local chapter of national group embraces changing demographics

The League of Women Voters’ national organization was created in 1920, one year before women were legally given the right to vote, and some eight years before Native Americans were able to vote. The league formed to educate women on how to exercise their newfound political right. The local league chapter was created in 1946. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of League of Women Voters

The League of Women Voters’ national organization was created in 1920, one year before women were legally given the right to vote, and some eight years before Native Americans were able to vote. The league formed to educate women on how to exercise their newfound political right. The local league chapter was created in 1946.

The League of Women Voters of La Plata County is a malleable organization, evolving with the changing times to accommodate new members.

Former President Sally Bellerue, who joined the league in the early 1990s, has watched membership activity ebb and flow at the La Plata County chapter.

Established in 1946, the La Plata County chapter currently has 92 registered members.

“There are times when we’ve been very involved, and we have gone through periods where we have fewer members and operate on a more informal basis,” Bellerue said. “I think we’ve been more organized in various periods. Right now, we are more informally organized.”

For 71 years, the La Plata County chapter of the national league has used the slogan, “Making democracy work.”

The national League of Women Voters was founded in 1920 to support women’s suffrage, and to educate women on their newfound political right so that they could become informed and responsible voters.

The league works to ensure all eligible voters have the knowledge and capability to exercise their right to vote.

“We are strongly focused on making sure that everyone who is qualified as a voter in the United States is able to vote,” said chapter spokeswoman Trish Pegram, who has been a member of the La Plata County branch for about 15 years. She attributes waning membership numbers in recent years to people living busier lives.

“In the last 20 years, women have gotten more involved in the workforce, and everyone is just busier,” Pegram said. “The mothers no longer have the free time during the day that so many had 50 years ago to work on the league.”

Over the years, the league has become an all-encompassing organization, and invites men to participate. Still, the misconception remains that all league members must be female.

“I would say that about 20 percent of our membership is male, and that is an important fact that many people do not realize,” Pegram said. “We would love to have any men who are interested in nonpartisan political efforts to join us.”

There also are challenges recruiting and retaining young people, who are vital for the league to continue. “The league is getting older, and we are working hard now to attempt to bring in younger people,” Pegram said.

“We recognize that we can no longer work in the same way we have for so long. We have to change with the changing times.”

While some people might appear apathetic toward politics, Pegram said the younger generation is more passionate and involved after the 2016 presidential election. “There is a divisiveness in politics right now and a sense that the last election was a watershed,” she said. “I believe younger people think that unless they get involved, they will not get the leadership they want.”

The league is reaching out to potential new members through partnerships and making itself accessible to the working class.

“The national and state league are actively working with local folks like us to get more involved with social media, and by doing things like running our meetings later in the afternoon to accommodate people working and who are younger,” Pegram said. “Locally, we are strategizing ways to get ourselves to be made more aware of by students.”

Attempting to get closer with high school- and college-aged students, Pegram said the league is partnering with individuals and organizations at Fort Lewis College, and is talking with political science teachers at Durango High School.

The league is a nonpartisan civic organization that works to educate and engage voters through forums and talks. “For almost 100 years, we have been strongly nonpartisan. We never, ever support any candidate or party,” Pegram said. “We have candidate forums, and we educate others about who their choices are in a nonpartisan way.”

The league also studies political issues and supports a variety of progressive policy positions, such as gun control laws, climate change and universal health care.

“We do have stands on policies and issues, which we support, lobby and advocate for,” Pegram said. “I know there is a common perception among people that the league is left-leaning. It is an unabashedly and unashamedly progressive group, but we are not attached to any party.”

On the state and national levels, the League of Women Voters hires lobbyists to argue for specific legislation in the Colorado General Assembly and Congress.

The league plans to be heavily involved in the upcoming off-year election in November, with educational programming in the works.

“Our plan is to have forums for the school board elections in Bayfield and Durango,” Pegram said. “We will also include the issues on the ballot for the city and county.”

Pegram said the League will also partner with libraries in La Plata County on Sept. 26 for National Voter Registration Day to offer walk-in registration for interested voters.

“There is no excuse for any person in Colorado to not to be registered to vote and to not vote,” she said.

The League of Women Voters has had a strong presence in politics in its 97-year history, with more than 700 local branches active today.

Bellerue believes the longevity of the organization comes from being well-informed on the issues and widely sharing that knowledge.

“We are respected as a group that really looks at the issues, so when we take a stand, it has some impact,” she said. “When we speak at a public hearing, people pay attention.”

mrupani@durangoherald.com

For 71 years, the La Plata County League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group, has held several panels around election time to educate voters about candidates and issues. Enlarge photo

Durango Herald file

For 71 years, the La Plata County League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group, has held several panels around election time to educate voters about candidates and issues.

Comments » Read and share your thoughts on this story