Jane Barnes — League of Women Voters president asks tough questions

March 2012 View more

NMAG0312_NeighborhoodNaperville resident Jane Barnes is the current president of the Naperville League of Women Voters. She served as president of the organization once before and will step down from the position at the end of the summer. Barnes spoke to Naperville Magazine recently about the League’s responsibility to voters and the changes she has witnessed in the community since she moved to Naperville in 1972.

The women’s suffrage movement gave birth to the League of Women Voters in 1920. The League was formally organized in Chicago on February 14 of that year, six months before the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Its mission is two-fold, according to its website: To present unbiased nonpartisan information about elections, the voting process, and issues, and to advocate for or against particular policies in the public interest (www.LWVNaperville.org).

The League traditionally hosts local and national debates; some voters know of its existence primarily because of that role. But Jane Barnes says she’s been surprised to find that others don’t make that connection at all. In addition to its sponsorship of debates, Barnes says the League advocates for open elections, social policy, criminal justice, and the environment. If that description sounds similar to most lobbying groups, Barnes points out one huge difference: The League is not tied to any political party or candidate. “I do not see any other organization that has the network behind it that has such a broad and deep focus,” says Barnes. So, while the league does take positions on many issues, at the local, state and national level, it does not endorse specific candidates.

Those positions will be vigorously debated this summer when the group holds its semiannual convention in Washington D.C. League members from around the country will gather to review current policy on the Clean Air Act, for example, and the United States Immigration policy. Barnes says discussion may go on for hours until a “consensus” is reached. “What we are good at is asking questions,” Barnes says.

League members may be comfortable at asking the tough questions and approaching public officials with those questions, but Barnes wonders if the majority of the community feels the same way. The League is currently taking a closer look at what may be behind the trend of low voter turnout. Barnes suggests that if voters think their elected officials don’t care about what matters to them, they may quickly feel disconnected from the entire process. In addition, she says it’s difficult to keep a sense of community in a city the size of Naperville. On the positive side, Barnes says, the city has a central downtown where residents can congregate. But, on the flip side, the distance between the north side and the south side makes it easy to become anonymous and feel isolated.

Barnes grew up in Logansport, Indiana, and moved to Michigan after she was married. She obtained a Master’s degree in English at Michigan State. She has two adult children. When they were young, Barnes was active in PTA, church, and community organizations. She served on the city’s first Transportation Advisory Board. Barnes taught English at North Central College for 15 years. Since she retired three years ago, Barnes has enjoyed traveling and writing poetry; some of her poems have been published. She will step down from the League presidency in June, but it’s unlikely Barnes will ever lose her passion for debating public policy and participating in community service.

Presidential Primary Election

Naperville voters will go to their polling places on Tuesday, March 20 to cast their ballots in the 2012 presidential primary election. Voting places will open at 6 a.m. and remain open until 7 p.m. For more information on the election and on the League of Women Voters, visit the following websites:

Photo by Robyn Sheldon