“I really think that I’m someone who subscribes to Thomas Jefferson’s position that an educated and informed electorate is the key to a strong democracy,” said Nancy Williams. “The more people vote, the stronger our democracy is, and the fairer and more reflective our government is on who we are as a people.”
The longtime Hilton Head Island resident was elected by the League of Women Voters of South Carolina as president for the 2021-23 term. As such, she will lead the nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to education and voter service.
“I think it’s very important that people understand we are non-partisan. We neither oppose nor support candidates for office, nor do we support or oppose any political party,” Williams said of the League. “We are a political organization because we do take positions on what I would call good government positions, and these are positions that we have arrived at over the years, after careful study and grassroots efforts of our membership.”
Williams has been a member for about 30 years but could not fully participate in activities and league meetings until she retired in 2013 as executive director of Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry.
She’s held leadership roles for the past six years, as secretary and co-president with the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Area League, and then as state vice president and treasurer prior to her election to the top position.
The work carried out by the League of Women Voters was not new to Williams. Her mother also was a member in their hometown near Cleveland and set an example of civic activism.
“I can remember her working on water issues in our suburb of Cleveland, so I was aware that they were a very conscientious group of women who carefully studied issues, and then took considered positions on issues they had studied,” she said. “I also grew up in a very civic-minded family. Both parents held elected office in our community. My father was the equivalent of mayor in our town, and my mother was president of the board of education.”
Williams said that membership in the League has grown over the years, and prior to the 2020 election there was an increase in people wanting to get involved in registering voters.
“We have really two programmatic focuses. One is education and voter service. We register, we have ‘Get Out the Vote’ drives, we have Vote411.org, we have candidate forums, and we have issue forums around the state through local leagues,” said Williams. “We do our best to provide voters with the information they need to participate in government, and to make informed choices at the ballot boxes.”
The other focus is advocacy, and at the state level, the organization’s legislative priorities fall under the umbrella of the national league’s “Making Democracy Work Campaign.”
“This is about protecting voters’ rights and voters’ access to the polls. We are working to remove barriers to voting across the state. We want to make it easier and not harder for people to vote,” she said. “It’s not only important that women vote, we want to see people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, gender be reflected.”
The 2020 Census was released Aug. 12, making available the data that will determine if and how state district lines will be redrawn to accurately reflect a changing and shifting population. The state League will be hosting a virtual public event called “What would fair maps look like?” from 7 to 8 p.m. Sept. 29.
“This is our support for transparent and fair redistricting. We’re trying to eliminate gerrymandering in our state. Our members have testified, and I have, at the recent redistricting hearings,” said Williams. “We have put in place a redistricting advisory committee that consists of eight people from around the state, some Republicans, some Democrats, nonprofits. They are going to propose redrawing the state maps. We are not drawing lines to favor incumbents or partisan leaders, but to best represent the voters so the voters choose their representative, and not the other way around.”
Williams said that the committee has examined the current maps and have determined that only nine out of the 115 South Carolina districts are competitive, meaning that the other districts are “safe” districts and the incumbents will be re-elected because like-minded people live in those districts.
“People don’t realize how that impacts them. A lot of decisions that are important to you – health care, roads, bridges, services to your community – are being made at the state level. Fair redistricting, where our voters’ voices are heard, is really essential so that our democracy works,” she said.
A third critical League effort is opposing attempts to pass resolutions for a constitutional convention.
“If the U.S. Senate passes this and South Carolina becomes one of the states calling for a constitutional convention, then everything is up for grabs. We’ve never had a constitutional convention since 1787. Things like Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, civil rights – all these things are up for grabs,” Williams said. “This is a dangerous resolution, and South Carolina is one of the states who gets more money from the federal government than it contributes. And the people who are promoting this nationally are those who want to rein in the federal government and spending. If that happens to a large degree, South Carolina will be among the first to lose out.”
The state League has working groups studying a number of other issues, including education, the environment, healthcare, racial justice and women’s issues.
“Home rule is also what we care about, pushing decisions that affect local towns, so if we want to ban plastic bags or our superintendent wants to require masks, we can do so,” she said.
The League of Women Voters is open to anyone age 16 and older, men as well as women. The LWVSC provides an election guide at Vote411.org, and six local leagues will be using the platform to cover municipal elections during this next cycle. The candidates will be presenting their own words, and biographies, and users will be able to compare candidates. There is also a link for people to check on their voter registration status and confirming their voting precincts.
Sept. 28 is National Voter Registration Day. But, Williams said, “It’s not enough that you are registered. You have to vote.”
Beyond that, she continued, “What you really need to do is continue to learn and be involved. It’s part of our responsibility as citizens living in a democratic society that it doesn’t end on Election Day,” Williams said. “We educate people, but we certainly advocate, and in doing so, we protect the rights of everyone, even those who choose not to vote.”
For more information, go to lwvsc.org.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.