Area native now chief of LWV

Published 12:44 am Sunday, September 21, 2008

She runs one of the most prominent nonpartisan political organizations in the country. And Mary Wilson, president of the League of Women Voters, says she traces her interest in the political scene to her childhood in Lawrence County’s Aid Township.

It was there that her father, Franklin Leroy “Roy” Wilson, was a presiding judge for township elections.

“One of my earliest recollections is that I went to the polling place with my mother and had to crawl under the table to sit on my father’s lap,” she recalled. “My interest in voting and politics probably came from that experience.”

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Now headquartered in New Mexico with her mother, Blanche Riggle Wilson, Wilson came back to Lawrence County for a one-day visit on Friday. While here, she toured the Lawrence County Board of Elections and met with elections office staff.

Wilson spent her first 12 years in Lawrence County, before moving to Urbana.

In 1979 she moved to Albuquerque, N.M., where she held a post with the federal government, a job that prohibited her involvement in partisan politics.

“I sought out the League as a way to be involved in political things in a nonpartisan way,” she said.

Later on, she went on the national board of the League and was re-elected for her second term as president this past June.

Carrie Chapman Catt, a prominent suffragist, founded the League in 1920 during the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage, which took place six months before women got the right to vote. The League was started to help these new voters learn the political process.

Over the decades Wilson has worked for the League, she has seen the voting habits of Americans change. She finds this dramatic presidential election as one that is bringing more on board in the political process.

“We are very much encouraged this year. For the first time we are truly bringing the 18-to-25 year olds into the political process,” she said. “They are registered to vote and are voting in the primary in larger numbers than they ever have. I tell my members across the country that our challenge is to keep them as lifelong voters.”

A challenge for the League, whose mission is to encourage informed and active participation in government, is to harness the enthusiasm for this election into broader social good.

“It is a real challenge, isn’t it?” she said. “We in the league think … the enthusiasm among all age groups needs to be channeled. That we need to show them there is a way that they can make an impact. You go to the polls in order to have your voice count.”

But showing up to the polls on Election Day is only half of a citizen’s responsibility, Wilson said.

“If you don’t hold your elected officials accountable after the election, you have only done a part of your responsibility,” she said. “If you want your voice to be heard, you have to go and talk with your elected officials afterwards.”