MARK BENNETT: League of Women Voters president has passion for democracy

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New leader: Carly Schmitt was elected president of the League of Women Voters of Vigo County last month.

As a kid growing up in central Illinois, Carly Schmitt listened to her great-grandfather’s dinner-table stories about Franklin Roosevelt, public works projects and the days of the New Deal.

By age 18, she served as a trained volunteer for the first of many voter registration drives.

Civic engagement has long been a part of Schmitt’s life.

Participation in the process of democracy is a cornerstone of the League of Women voters. Schmitt was elected last month as the new president of the League of Women Voters of Vigo County. 

The 37-year-old moves into that role at a pivotal moment. The 2020 election, with offices at stake from county coroner to president of the United States, is just five months away and the coronavirus pandemic continues to cast uncertainty on its execution. And, the League is organizing its observance of next month’s 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, when women won the right to vote.

The League’s Vigo County chapter also formed in 1920, five months before the 19th Amendment became law.

“Our league has been a very important part of our community for decades and generations,” Schmitt said Monday.

She was elected president at the chapter’s annual meeting a couple weeks ago.

Schmitt got involved with the League shortly after joining in 2011 the faculty at Indiana State University, where she’s now an associate professor of political science. Schmitt steps into the role of chapter president previously filled by Carolyn Callecod, who served eight years and will become treasurer of the nonpartisan, nonprofit group.

Callecod expressed enthusiasm about Schmitt’s leadership. “I know Carly will do a fantastic job,” Callecod said Wednesday. “She’s very smart and has fantastic ideas. I’m very pleased.”

Two objectives are on the Vigo group’s agenda, Schmitt said. Both fall under the national League of Women Voters’ mission of “empowering voters, defending democracy.” 

One priority is advocating for allowing Hoosiers to vote by mail in the Nov. 3 election, without having to provide an excuse for voting with an absentee ballot. Indiana allowed no-excuse absentee voting in last month’s primary because of concerns that lines of voters at in-person polling sites could spread the COVID-19 coronavirus. More than a half-million Hoosiers chose to mail in their votes, rather than risking their health.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and Secretary of State Connie Lawson have not indicated whether they will recommend to Hoosiers will be given that option this fall by the state Election Commission. Vigo’s League will push for that to happen.

“Our membership feels like it is dependent on us to advocate for no-excuse absentee voting” in November, Schmitt said.

A second timely priority is promoting racial justice in Vigo County. Demonstrations continue nationwide, triggered by the May 25 death of a Black man in Minneapolis, George Floyd, under the knee of a police officer. Though violence and looting occurred alongside some of the early protests, most have been peaceful. Marches for equality and the Black Lives Matter movement have unfolded in Terre Haute, as well.

Schmitt said the League will work toward “developing a richer, more inclusive environment” in the community. They aim to find allies to that cause “and bring about positive changes for racial justice in our community,” she added.

The Vigo League has advocated for community changes since its inception, from a push to create a juvenile court system for the well-being of children to backing the effort to build a new public library main branch in the 1970s, court reform, zoning, taxes, schools, environmental concerns, senior citizen issues and the former county children’s home, according to research by longtime members.

“Through our history, the legacy is the League does not sit back and let things happen,” Schmitt said.

Of course, the group also is well known for its continuing voter registration drives, candidate forums, monthly “crackerbarrel” sessions, and voter education projects such as the Vote411.org informational website. 

During Callecod’s eight years as president, the League supplied “I Voted” stickers to voters, organized Equality Day activities each August (intended to prepare the community for this year’s 19th Amendment centennial) and the “Be One, Bring One” voting drive collaboration with the Terre Haute NAACP chapter. Callecod credited fellow League members for the success of those efforts.

Following that work is a continuation of civic activity for Schmitt, dating back to those talks with her great-grandfather and volunteer duty at voter registration drives as an Eastern Illinois University freshman.

“I’ve always had a passion to get other folks involved in the democratic process,” she said.

A busy season awaits.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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