Q&A: President of voting rights organization wants to build relationships with students, hear their perspectives

Courtesy Photo | Lara Raisanen

Lara Raisanen, president of the League of Women Voters of the Mount Pleasant Area, wants to build relationships with students and hear their perspectives on voting rights. 

The League of Women Voters is a non-partisan organization that focuses on making democracy work for all. Central Michigan Life sat down with Raisanen, who became president of the Mount Pleasant chapter of the League in May, to talk about the plans and goals of the organization.  

CM Life: How did you get involved with the League of Women Voters?

The long story is my grandmother and mother were members of League and they used to take me to League meetings back when I was a baby. As an adult, I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina for a while and the League there was very strong. It had a lot of professional women who were my parents’ age and those women were mentors for young, professional women like me. League was a wonderful way to both be involved in an organization that tackled issues I cared about and be surrounded by these really amazing, strong, successful women who were willing to give their time and expertise to helping me be successful. 

What are the goals for the League of Women Voters of the Mount Pleasant Area?

I think our goals as a League board and as a League is to build an organization that sustains itself for the next generation so our focus is to increase our membership base, broaden the activities that we do so our members who have busy lives and hectic schedules can find something that is of interest to them and fits into their life, and for League to have a more permanent and lasting relationship with both Central Michigan University and mid-Michigan. 

You mentioned strong women in League setting an example for younger women when you lived in North Carolina. Do you aim to achieve the same thing here?

I would love that. We’ve got a definite breath of experience in our League. We’ve got women who were school teachers, professors, business women, so yes, that is definitely something that we would be interested in. We’re hoping in turn, having relationships with students and younger people keeps us young. 

Our League is older. We want to be younger. I don’t want this to sound like a negative because it’s not but when I started League five years ago, I was one of the only women participating who wasn’t retired. That’s a challenge. The women in the League are fantastic women. They’ve been great to work with, they’ve been wonderful mentors to me, they’re good friends but I think when you have a generation gap from college student to retiree, it can be hard to overcome. Over the past five years, we’ve worked really hard — now we have quite a few professors who are members so we kind of have members now in between and we want to continue to be younger because it’s good for us. An organization needs new people and young people to sustain itself and thrive but that’s not in any way to discount the expertise and dedication of the women who have been in League for 40 to 50 years. 

You mentioned building more relationships at CMU. What do you think that will look like?

I think initially that’s going to look like a lot of listening to students who are interested in League telling us what will help, what they want to attend, what they want to learn about, and what issues and actions they care about while also teaching the way League approaches issues because League does have a structure in the way we approach issues. I would be really interested in having students who are interested in League and want me or a League person to come talk to them or their organization to contact me by phone, email or twitter. We’ll come and talk to your group.

What are some common things students might not know about voting rights?

One thing that I think is important for CMU students to know is that some CMU students live in Mount Pleasant and some CMU students live in Union Township, so the places CMU students go to vote is not always the same place and that’s a challenge that not every college campus faces. 

Another key point is that registration does not expire, but if you move, you must update your registration information. A change of address, even within the same city, could affect your polling location as well as the offices for which you cast a ballot. 

Why is it important for people to be informed about local politics?

It’s easy to think, especially right now, in a political climate where a lot is happening on the national level, ‘oh wow, this is huge,’ because it is. It is huge and it affects millions of people. But in terms of living your day to day life, local politics have an outsized influence. Yes, what happens in Congress and out of the White House can affect our lives and does affect our lives, but what happens on the local level affects everything from whether your street is a one-way street to a two-way street, if you have a recycling bin, the functioning of the local library and how your residence is zoned. 

Where can students get more information about local politics?

The League puts up a voter guide on our website. We also participate in the national League’s vote411.org. We also have candidate forums where we have had all the candidates come and the community asks them questions. Basic information about voting and registering to vote can be found at the Veterans Memorial Library. 

Why is the mission of League important to you?

I believe there’s nothing more important than protecting access to participatory democracy. Our democracy is only as strong as the number of people who participate in its functioning. 

Is there anything else you want to share?

I was in League when I was in college. I was in League as a young adult. Now, I’m still in League as an older adult and it’s a great organization. I had a wonderful experience and I don’t want to say it’s only women. We are the League of Women Voters and we are proud of that fact. We are proud that our heritage comes from the fight to gain access to the ballot for women but we are by no means a women-only organization. Anybody can be a member of League and we welcome everybody. When we want to make democracy work today, we want to make it work for every person.