Central Berkshire League of Women Voters eyes participation rates in Pittsfield

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PITTSFIELD — They're official. Now the work begins.

A local group is working to get as many city voters registered for municipal elections on Nov. 7.

"In November of 2013, only 24 percent of eligible voters voted," said Kathie Penna. "There's a lot of change coming to Pittsfield. We want to get people informed."

Penna is the president of the League of Women Voters of Central Berkshire County. The Pittsfield chapter became a recognized unit of the state league on July 24.

Though the organization's name includes "Central Berkshires," Penna said, it's open to anyone. That includes men, who have been welcomed as full members in the organization since the 1970s.

"It's important to be diverse," said Penna. "We're open to anyone."

Penna told The Eagle that she thinks the organization has retained its name because of the league's history. The league was formed before women had the right to vote in the U.S. and struggled as second class citizens for spaces of political equality.

The new league is a revival of sorts. Penna and the group reformed the organization in late 2016 after the November election.

But the league's history in Pittsfield goes back 86 years. The Pittsfield League of Women Voters was officially formed in 1931. The national organization formed in 1920.

In the 1960s, Penna explained, the league changed its name to reflect its membership's growth.

"When membership included people all over the county and stretched out much farther than Pittsfield," said Penna, "the chapter changed their name and identified themselves as the Central Berkshire League of Women Voters, in order to include all of central Berkshire county."

The league dissolved in 2001 but reformed, loosely, after the 2016 elections. Public information meetings — in March, April, and May — preceded the chapter's official recognition.

In order to become official, the chapter had to adopt a charter, bylaws and elect officers.

Penna was voted in as president then, she said.

Rebecca Thompson was elected as treasurer and Sonam Choedon was appointed as voter services chairman.

Choedon has a unique perspective on the question of voting rights. She was born in Nepal, but that country doesn't grant citizenship — and the benefits from citizenship like voting — based on birth.

When Choedon became a naturalized U.S. citizen after living in America for almost a decade, it was the first time she was allowed to vote for a country's leadership.

"The sheer reason I was born in Nepal didn't get me citizenship," Choedon said. "People in the U.S. take it for granted."

Choedon wants to spread her civic enthusiasm to her fellow citizens in Pittsfield.

"I'm excited for the coming months to be a resource to the community," Choedon said.

Choedon said her position was newly created and that the details of her duties are still being worked out.

"My role is to maintain voter registration forms, to facilitate voter registration drives — really whatever the group decides," explained Choedon.

But it will likely be a big part of the league's mission. Educating the public on candidates, voting registration and times and locations for the polls are all on the agenda.

The league is nonpartisan, Penna said, so it won't be endorsing any candidates.

Darcie Sosa is in charge of growing local awareness for the organization. That means taking advantage of the opportunities provided by community events to engage with the public, she said. Piggybacking on events can lead to growing membership, which in turn can lead to a greater public engagement for the organization's push for more voter involvement in the city and the region.

"Our main goals are to grow our own membership, to let voters be aware there is an election and to register them to vote," said Sosa.

And everyone's welcome, said Penna. She said that the Pittsfield-based league has received calls and interest from people across the region. There is a unit in Williamstown, but nothing to the south — so far.

"I've gotten calls and emails from Sheffield and Great Barrington," Penna said, "a woman in Becket, too."

As a "unit," the Pittsfield based organization relies on the state organization for administrative tasks, though that could change.

"We can at any point petition to become an independent local league," said Penna. "We have talked about doing that a year from now, but it could certainly happen sooner."

The league will have a booth at the next Third Thursday event in Pittsfield.

Interested parties can reach the league at their Facebook page and official web page. You can reach the league at berkshirelwv@gmail.com.

"We're hoping," Choedon said, "to make the upcoming election a more active and more engaged one."

Reach staff reporter Eoin Higgins at 413-464-4872.


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