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Helping the League of Women Voters Expand Its Mission, Extend Its Reach

This article originally appeared in the New Jersey Spotlight.

By Colleen O'Dea

As executive director of the LWV of NJ, Kerry Margaret Butch knows the organization can play a vital role in the community

Who: Kerry Margaret Butch

Age: 50

Home: Asbury Park

What she does: Executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey

Her background: After graduating from George Mason University, Butch embarked on a long career working in nonprofits. Prior to joining the LWV, she worked as the Urban Project Director for the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions.

Butch also worked as the executive director of the Asbury Park Consortium and as a community organizer for the Ironbound Community Corp. (Ironbound Committee against Toxic Waste). She was a member of the first graduating class of AmeriCorps serving with Clean Ocean Action in Asbury Park.

Her first interaction with the league: About 20 years ago, Butch worked with the League of Women Voters of Ocean Township to moderate a candidates' night in Asbury Park. There were 26 people running for five seats and figuring out the best way to get voters to hear all their views without the forum turning into an unwieldy event was difficult. The league set up a forum through which community members moved among five rooms where the candidates were seated. "It was challenging, but I was impressed by the moderators' creativity, commitment to providing a forum and, quite frankly, the ability to control," Butch said. "Talk about community service!"

How she got there: While she had worked with the league, Butch had not been a member when she became its executive director four years ago. But she was impressed by the organization, its integrity, its history, and its mission. The New Jersey League of Women Voters was founded in Newark in 1920 with its first challenge to help newly enfranchised women voters. "I am keenly aware that everything we do as an organization, whenever you see women participating in government, we are standing on the shoulders of the women and men that fought for that right," she said. "That is our history. That’s what attracted me to the job." Butch also noted that she started working on "the same day as Toni Zimmer, the first African-American president."

This is not your mother's LWV: Butch said the league has gotten more diverse over the years. It has not been an all women's organization since the 1970s, and men are both active and growing in numbers within the group. The league also has a new Young People's Network that is bringing college students and young professionals both into the organization as a whole and into its leadership ranks. "Really the only things that our members share in common is intelligence, passion, and a core belief that democracy works better when citizens participate fully," Butch said.

The main focus of the league under Butch: "The league has always been a nonpartisan, activist, grassroots organization whose leaders believed that citizens should play a critical role in government," Butch said. "While the league is probably best known for our election work -- moderating debates and registering voters -- we do so much more." Leagues throughout the state hold educational forums on topics of interest to their communities -- for instance, the Morristown Area League recently hosted a panel called “Feminism Unfinished.” The league also lobbies on legislation and has statewide committees that focus on six areas: natural resources, education, immigration, fiscal policy, women and family issues, and government. The issues on which league members lobby include more open government laws, a ban on fracking waste, and an expansion of in-person early voting.

Frustration: The continual decline in voter turnout can have no other affect. "It is absolutely disheartening to see a steady decline in voter participation, but that is not really the fault of the average citizen," Butch said. "I think many people are just sick and tired of partisan politics, the obscene amount of money in elections, and government gridlock. The system seems rigged, and people are beginning to think that their vote doesn’t matter, their voice doesn’t matter, and there is nothing that can be done to change anything. That isn’t true. Their participation really does matter." The league's efforts at boosting voter turnout include making sure that citizens have the information they need to make decisions on Election Day -- including information about their rights, candidates, ballot questions, and where to vote. The group also works to increase civic participation year round in by encouraging attendance at community or board meetings, learning about issues, writing to the local newspaper, or becoming a debate moderator. "There are many ways to get involved outside of election days, and I hope that people will join the League of Women Voters of New Jersey and start exploring those options," Butch said.

What you may not know about her: Butch comes from a large Irish Catholic family, with five nieces and nephews ages 3 through 37 living as near as Wall Township and as far away as China. She recently became a great-aunt.

Even more you may not know about her: Butch was a producer of the award-winning 2009 documentary “Greetings from Asbury Park” that explored how eminent domain has affected a family and the entire resort community.