"There is so much to learn running for office, and so to do that and to have a job and to have a family is really challenging." - Susan Simpson
Susan Simpson is an election judge and the president of the League of Women Voters of Wyoming.
She went to the University of Wyoming and has an undergraduate degree in English Education, a masters degree in English, and a graduate degree in Library Science.
Susan is committed to voter service — education, access, choice — and opposed to any legislation limiting voters’ ability to change their affiliation on Primary Election Day.
Listen in as she discusses the role of libraries in a healthy democracy, how politics is like sausage making, and why women don't run for office, they have to be asked.
• Why Susan Simpson wanted to work in a library
• The role of libraries in democracy
• How libraries have changed with the introduction of computers
• The importance of candidate forums
• The mission statement of the League of Women Voters
• How politics is like sausage making
• The status of women in Wyoming
• How the League of Women Voters chooses candidates
• How to deal with 'fake news'
• The difference between bias and fake news
Emy: 00:08 Welcome to First, But Last?, brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. I am your host Emy diGrappa. Wyoming is called the Equality State because we were the first to give women the right to vote. 150 years later, we wonder what Wyoming women think about the progress toward equality now. Let's find out, and thank you for listening.
Today we are talking to Susan Simpson. She is the president of the League of Women Voters in Wyoming.
Susan: 00:43 Thank you, I'm glad to be here.
Emy: 00:44 So we just wanna get to know you a little bit and... Where- Where did you grow up?
Susan: 00:49 I lived in Iowa until I was 14, and my parents moved to Wheatland when I was 14, and I came to the university as a freshman at 18. And on and off since then, I've lived in Laramie.
Emy: 01:02 Oh, wow! So you- you have been in Wyoming quite a while.
Susan: 01:06 Yes.
Emy: 01:07 You consider yourself a- a true Wyoming woman?
Susan: 01:10 I don't think of myself as being a Wyoming woman unless I'm somewhere outside Wyoming because everyone around me, almost, is a Wyoming woman. It's when I'm outside the state, when I meet- realize how I'm not like other people.
Emy: 01:24 Oh, that's- yeah, that's interesting. And i- And it is- it is fun to go outside the state and say you're from wyoming because there's so few of us. (laughs).
Susan: 01:32 Yes. They say, "Oh, I have never met anyone from Wyoming before. Do you have a horse? Do you ride to work?" (laughs)
Emy: 01:32 (laughs).
Susan: 01:41 I'm actually wearing western clothes. Yeah.
Emy: 01:44 (laughs). You should just say yes to all of that. (laughs).
So what was your degree in at UW?
Susan: 01:53 I have two degrees from University of Wyoming. I have a degree in English Education, and I taught high school English for a year. And then, I got a Master's degree in English. And then, I did some teaching as the- what they call the Supply Lecture,r at that point, at the English department. And I made a list of possible professions, and where I could work, and I decided that I wanted to be a librarian. And so, I went to graduate school in Library Science, and came back and went to work at the public library as a reference librarian.
Emy: 02:26 And w- And why was that a desire?
Susan: 02:28 The typical thing to say is, "Oh, I love to read!" But the other thing is, that I think librarians help people, and I think that what- the work that they do makes a difference in people's lives. And I wanted to do that instead of, this is over-simplification, but just to make money. I thought I wanted to be of service.
Emy: 02:49 I can honestly say that you must have done everything in your career path with passion, because I don't think you go to school and get a degree in english to make money.
Susan: 02:49 (laughs).
Emy: 03:00 (laughs). Right?
Susan: 03:00 You have a degree in english? (laughing).
Emy: 03:06 (laughing). No, but I kinda think that that's a known thing.
Susan: 03:08 Yeah.
Emy: 03:09 O- Or, you know, teaching is a passion for people.
Susan: 03:11 Yes, but I didn't think I was a very good teacher. And I think I was a much better librarian.
Emy: 03:17 Well, I think I've learned a lot about democracy in libraries as of late, and the role that libraries do play in our democracy, because they give us access to information.
Susan: 03:30 Mm-hmm (affirmative). Access to information, access to the tools to use information, and help using the tools that we have, all of those are just incredibly valuable. When I started out... You know, your audience doesn't realize that I'm sitting here with my gray hair. I have been a librarian for a long time. And when I started out we had paper card catalogs, and I remember the first computer that we got in the building. It was an orange monitor, and we had PeachText as our software. And oh, how the world has changed. Then, there was no internet. There was no email. No DVDs. There were 16 and 8-millimeter projectors. I mean, we've seen a lot of change in the last 50 and 60 years.
Emy: 04:16 So have- have libraries always been a place, uh, where people gather in terms of... You know, there's a lot of- a lot of community, kind of, forums that happen at libraries.
Susan: 04:26 Hm.
Emy: 04:26 Plus, libraries offer access to computers when people don't have computers, or who are visiting from out of town. I mean, is- has that always been the case?
Susan: 04:36 Yes. Always having forums. If you look... Here- Are you placed in Laramie with the Humanities Council?
Emy: 04:43 No.
Susan: 04:43 Are you somewhere else? M'kay.
Emy: 04:45 Yeah.
Susan: 04:45 The old library, down at 405 Grand Avenue, had a big meeting room upstairs where the children's room was, and where the planning office is now. And they would have forums, and programs and cultural events upstairs, and they called it an auditorium, in 1906. And before the library had computers they had typewriters.
Emy: 05:07 (laughs). Of course.
Susan: 05:10 But the high school didn't have typewriters, and so having th- those machines available are really important. And you've got things to help with production, laminators... My mind is going blank, but there are lots of machines that libraries would have available that people could come in and use. They're having "maker spaces" with 3D printers.
Emy: 05:30 So that makes me wonder, how was it that you became involved, and how long has your involvement been, with the League of Women Voters?
Susan: 05:38 My most recent involvement with the League of Women Voters came about because we cosponsored forums with the local league for candidate forums. And so, we worked together to do that, and I attended the forums, and I decided I really ought to join. Because I thought that the candidate forums are really important in terms of giving the candidates a chance to tell their story, and giving voters a chance to talk with and meet the candidates in a non-partisan atmosphere. And of course, the Laramie league, in addition, does voter guides. But all the leagues around the state. And basically I'm going to tell you where they are in alphabetical order, I hope. (laughing).
Campbell County. Casper, Cheyenne. Fremont County. Jackson have league members who do forums even though they don't meet together as a league officially.
Emy: 06:41 Wh- What is the mission statement of the League or- League of Women Voters?
Susan: 06:44 Oh, defending democracy! (laughs). I'm not gonna get it right. Educating voters. Because having educated voters, and people who are comfortable voting, is fundamental to the smooth working of democracy and people feeling invested in democracy. And it's really important that our people feel that way about their country.
Emy: 07:08 As a president of the League of Women Voters, are you familiar with the women's right to vote in Wyoming?
Susan: 07:15 Yes. I did not serve on the Wyoming Women's Suffrage Celebration Commission, but I did attend some of their meeting. So yes. And I have learned more about women's suffrage than I ever thought to learn. You're going to ask me some questions about women's suffrage, aren't ya?
Emy: 07:36 Well, I wanna ask you what stands out in your mind that's a game-changer, things that were different then, than they are now, how you've seen women progress. Not just here in Wyoming, but throughout the Unites States.
Susan: 07:52 The thing about women's suffrage in Wyoming is that it's not necessarily described accurately. Women did vote in elections before Wyoming. Women in Utah voted in elections before women in Wyoming did. But when Utah joined the Union, the right was taken away. Wyoming kept it for a mixed bag of reasons. And I'm probably telling you things you already know. You know, the men thought that allowing women to vote would attract women, and they could increase the population of the territory. One of the people in favor of women's suffrage said something along the lines of, "Well, if black men are able to vote, my wife should be able to vote." And then, there were people who believed in women's suffrage. So it's a splendid example of sausage making, if you will. You've heard that politics is like sausage making? Yes. No, you hadn't. That is, you don't make the [crosstalk 00:08:52]-
Emy: 08:52 No. But I'd like- I'd like to hear that. (laughs).
Susan: 08:53 (laughing). That politics is like sausage making in the sense that you don't necessarily want to know the ingredients that went in to it, because it's not all heroes and knights in shining armor. There are also reasons that are less admirable, shall we say. And I think that women's suffrage in Wyoming is one of those. There was no women on a jury till 1949, after the first woman's jury. So it's not exactly as if, "Oh, yes, let's welcome w- women in and let them participate in our government," because they gave lip service rather than actual equality.
Emy: 09:32 What do you think the status for women right now is in our state? I mean, I think that a lot of women feel like we have come a long way, and then other women feel like we have a long ways to go. What- What is your take on that?
Susan: 09:45 You know, this has been a good experience for me, 'cause it made me think about my high school years in Wheatland, Wyoming. And I think about the women in Wheatland, and the kinds of things that they did. There were nurses, teachers, librarians. There were ranch women. There were women who owned a business with their husband. And there were people who worked as sales clerk. My dentist was a man. My doctor was a man. My parents didn't have an accountant, but there were no women accountants. So when you think about the growth of women in the professions, that really is a place where we're doing much, much better, I think, than they were 100 years ago. On the other hand, we don't have very many women in our legislature. Um-
Emy: 10:33 And why do you think that is?
Susan: 10:34 Well, you know, they did a program a couple of years ago, and women talked about reasons that it was difficult to run. If you're a woman with small children in home, and you live some place besides Cheyenne, are you going to pick up and leave your children to go to a- a 40-day legislative session? That's very difficult to do. Women, they say, don't run for office, women have to be asked to run for office. And sometimes more than once. I was listening to the school board candidates just now and one of them said, "Yes, well, I was asked."
Emy: 10:34 Right.
Susan: 11:08 In fact, I think two of 'em said that they were asked. Whereas men feel that they would be a good candidate, and don't wait to be asked. It's that, kind of, reticence we have where also, I think is- can be a kind of shyness in terms of going out and raising money, and speaking up and saying, "I am a good candidate and you should vote for me." That takes real confidence in one's self, and I think it's hard to do that.
Plus, there are a lot of issues. People who are incumbents have a tremendous advantage when they're running for re-election because they know so much more. There's so much to learn running for office. And so, to do that, and to have a job, and to have a family is really challenging. And it's challenging for men, too, but it's easier for them to take that on than it is for a woman, I think.
Emy: 11:59 And so, have you ever thought about running for office?
Susan: 12:02 My husband tells me I should but I have... Yes, I guess one thinks about it, but I haven't done it yet, I think. No, I haven't done it. I have had a lot of offices in my work life and in my private life managing things, but there's too much going on right now to do it.
Emy: 12:24 In the League of Women Voters do you mentor young women? Do you try and do a membership drive, for example, to get young women to join and be a part of it?
Susan: 12:36 Defending democracy includes all kinds of things about election and voter issue and voter rights, and empowering voters includes learning things and coming to a decision. The league wants to study the facts. The league wants to come to a consensus, and then advocate for positions. And so, people can be drawn to the positions or the study. We don't have membership drives, per se, because it needs to be people who are interested. But you know it's like asking, "Would you like to join the league?" I mean, that's a- a good thing to do to people. And I think that we tend to be more personal contact that way than drives to the community at large.
Or people who come to meetings. The meetings this year, the forums across the state, some of them have been in person, but they have been socially distanced, and some of them have just been all recorded, or just the person who is the moderator and the timer, and the candidates, there's been some variation. So it hasn't been a typical year for forums where we were able to get lists of names and say, "We're having a meeting, would you like to come," sort of thing. [crosstalk 00:13:49]-
Emy: 13:48 Well, but you advert- you advertise, don't you? You advertise when you're doing a candidate forum in whatever-
Susan: 13:55 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Emy: 13:56 ... [crosstalk 00:13:56] you're in?
Susan: 13:56 Mm-hmm (affirmative). On Facebook. On the website. Newspaper articles. Newspaper ads. In Laramie, and in Campbell County and Gillette, the public access TV runs the forums. And so, if people don't see them at the time, they can watch them. The public access TV in Gillette, you can just go and click on the link and see it, whereas most of the others are either on library websites or on Facebook pages. And again, you can see them any time.
Emy: 14:24 [crosstalk 00:14:24]-
Susan: 14:24 And you can contribute questions, right? And so, members contribute questions, but also, just members of the public can send in questions and ask that they be presented to the candidates. One of the things with the questions is that they're not directed. You know, "Have you stopped beating your wife," or the- whatever the equivalent is for a candidate. The questions... It's a nonpartisan event. It's a chance for candidates to present themselves. And so, you're not aiming to have "gotcha" questions, you're aiming to have questions that allow people to tell their story. And so, sometimes people want "gotcha" questions.
Emy: 15:05 Oh, I'm sure. Especially in this election year. But how do you really strive to make it nonpartisan? How do you really strive to- to make sure that even your point of view, whether you're democrat or republican, doesn't- doesn't block somebody from being or answering a question honestly about who they are and what they do?
Susan: 15:28 You know, it's one of the hardest things we do. We sit down and we meet. We refine questions. We argue. We stop, we come back, we meet again. (laughs). We do more arguing and thinking. And we have guidelines talking about the kinds of questions that we should be asking, and the idea of having a question that is not logically subsequent, you know. I mentioned, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" But there are questions that you can ask of candidates that start from a position. And you shouldn't start with a position and assume the person is for it or against it. You need to be impartial. You know, what is your position about something, rather than are you for protecting this, or are you unfair to people of color, or whatever.
Emy: 16:17 Oh, I'm sure it is hard, especially because every person which has been... Uh, some of the discussion we've had around journalism is that the ability to be impartial, the ability to gather information and tell a story that doesn't paint somebody in your own view of who that person is. You might not like them, you might like them. I mean, but how do you stay... And it might, you know, just lead right in to how does the League of Women Voters and you, yourself, deal with what is called fake news?
Susan: 16:54 I'm so glad you asked about that. I have two anecdotes, and I have a list of websites for people.
Number one. When I was in high school in Wyoming in the mid-60s, Mr. [Sleagure 00:17:08] taught a class on civics, and one of the assignments was to find the same news article in three different news magazines and compare them. And I chose Newsweek, Time, and US News & World Report. And I don't remember what the event was, but I do remember that those three reputable magazines did not cover whatever it was in the same way. That's just a given.
When I was in Library School the reference teacher said to take s- a subject you know something about and look at different encyclopedias, and see how they cover the subject. And I chose Mary, Queen of Scots, who was a queen of France, and then came back and was queen of Scotland. And then, um, ran in to difficulty and escaped to England, and was imprisoned and beheaded by her cousin, Elizabeth. M'kay? And I chose World Book, the children's encyclopedia, New Catholic Encyclopedia and Encyclopedia Britannica. And do you suppose that those three encyclopedias, designed for those different audiences, discussed that woman in the same way? No, she was accused of adultery. She was accused of murder. She was accused of wanting to take over the throne of England. World Book didn't talk about any of that. You know, children... We don't talk about adultery and murder with children, do we? It's another example. Is it fake news? No, it's bias coming out, and all people have biases. So the issue is to recognize your biases.
Emy: 18:53 Before you go on, what's the difference between biases and fake news?
Susan: 18:59 Fake news is a lie. A bias is the way you see the world. When I was county librarian I would go to commissioner meetings, or city council meetings, and then I would read about the meeting the next day in the paper. And what was most important to me was what happened to the library at those meetings. The reporter didn't share that interest, necessarily, and so his description of the meeting was different than mine was. It doesn't mean that what he said was fake, but what it does mean is that his perception is different than mine. Because he didn't care about money for the library, he was more interested in, I don't know, snow removal or whatever it was. Or if there was a big crowd there talking about a- an issue, he was reporting on what the big crowd was interested in, rather than little me and my board member.
Emy: 19:53 So talk about fake news and the resources, and what you have discovered in uncovering- in helping people uncover the truth when it comes to fake news.
Susan: 20:05 Okay. There are websites that people can go to to get evaluations on stories, and there are websites that list websites you can go to to get information about stories. And what I'd like to do is can I give you a printed list and you can put it somewhere wi- on your website, and people can go and get the list? I think many people know Snopes. Or many people know Politico.
Emy: 20:32 And so, what kind of research does the League of Women Voters do to know their audiences, to come up with questions, to be current, to really delve in to issues when they- when they hold public forums?
Susan: 20:48 Well, we're all members of our community, and we all participate in our communities, and so we know what people are saying, we know what we see in the newspaper, so... And people attend meetings. We have a member who goes to city council meetings and just sits there with a league button on and observes, because we want to be sure that our elected officials are doing things right. We need someone to be observing the county commission. We have two people who go to the school board, and a woman who goes to the hospital board meetings. And so, that's a way that people are aware and informed of what's going on. And folks will call, "You need to do something about this." So, that's something else going on.
Emy: 21:33 What do you get the best satisfaction out of in your work with the League of Women Voters? What do- What do you think is the best thing, besides the community forums that you named? And the name itself, League of Women Voters, is something, I think, to be really proud of in the fact that you're inviting women to be involved in the political process.
Susan: 21:56 May I explain that the league came out of the suffragist movement, and once women... I never know what verb to use, I feel that women should have had the vote and it was justly given to them. They wanted to use it, and so that's why the league formed. And the whole idea of getting educated and coming to positions is what we're about. But we accept anyone 16 or over. You don't need to be a citizen, you don't need to be a woman, we just... We'll be glad to have you in any way. Okay?
Uh, what am I proudest of? You know, I'm an election judge, too, and I'm proud of being an election judge. And I love it when people come in because they know that they have information there that they can trust that will help them make decisions. And that, I think, is the best part, is when people say, "Yes, this helped me so much."
And our community has people in it, our state has people in it, who don't have the internet, who don't have cable or Dish TV, who don't have television, maybe have a phone. And so, they need this information, and they can call, and we'll send it to them in the mail to help them decide who they want to vote for. Not who we think they should vote for, but who they want to vote for. And that just feels good.
Emy: 23:23 Well, it's interesting you said you're an election judge, I just learned that just now, uh, about you, Susan. And I'm- I'm really excited to hear that because one of the concerns for people across the United States is how do they know that their vote counts? Whether it's a mail-in ballot, which I think is the biggest concern, but how- how do you know your vote got counted if you mail it in?
Susan: 23:49 You should call the clerk and make sure that they got it. All right? That's all you do. My partner votes by absentee ballot and I made sure that they had received his vote and it had been processed.
Emy: 24:03 Ah, okay.
Susan: 24:04 Okay, it- that's the simple way to do it because if you call ahead of time, and to know that they've received it, you don't need to be anxious about it.
Emy: 24:13 Right, right.
Susan: 24:15 Another thing is that the Secretary of State in the state of Wyoming supervises elections, but every county clerk in Wyoming is in charge of elections in his or her county, and I think that for many of us, we know our county clerks and we trust them, and we think that they're honest.
Emy: 24:36 Right.
Susan: 24:38 Right. And we may not feel that way, necessarily, about government at another level, but at the county level I think that we're confident. So call and ask.
Emy: 24:48 M'Kay.
Susan: 24:48 And they'll tell you.
And the other thing is, they're, uh, my understanding is that Secretary of State Buchanan is allowing clerks to start processing absentee ballots earlier than election night. One of the things we're concerned about is that we're so used to TV telling us what the results are going to be, particularly in presidential elections. You know, they decl... Remember when they were declaring who had one in the West Coast and the East Coast hadn't even closed their polls, or Hawaii? And now, with this tremendous increase in the number of absentee, or mail-in, ballots, nationally there's a lot of concern that it may take longer to process everything.
And it's the sort of process where it's more important to go s- slow and get it right than it is to be fast and get it wrong. And I don't know how calm people can be about that process that needs to be done methodically and fairly, but it's gonna take a little bit of time. People don't understand that the results come in, and the totals are issued, and then the canvasing board, after the election, goes through and looks at all the results, and they have to certify the election. And then the certification goes to the state, and then the state certifies the results, and then... I mean, it's a many-stepped process, and people don't necessarily understand that about how it works. And for the ele- and the president, and then the electoral college meets. You know, it's in January? Right? I mean, we're really not gonna... It's not a fast process. Think of our ancestors traveling by horseback to carry results from Albany County over to... Maybe they would have taken the train.
But anyway, it's a methodical process and it- we're not going to have all the results right away. Because every state has different laws and implements them in their own way. It's not a single process all across this nation.
Emy: 26:58 Well, I- I love that you obviously have a lot of passion for the political process, that's why you're president of the League of Women Voters, that's why you're an election judge. (laughing). I think that's- that's admirable and- that you've been so involved in your community.
And my last question is what do you want people to know in this election, that makes our democracy so valuable that they will get out and vote? Like you said, less than 50% of our state votes. What is your message to people on the democratic process?
Susan: 27:35 I think that to vote is a celebration of one's citizenship, and it's really a chance for us to participate in our country all across the nation. Everyone's doing- It's a- It gives me the shivers to think about all these people going and voting. And I get to go and say, "Yes, this is my say, and I want it to count." And I've lost elections in my life, but it feels so good when the people you're for win. And it's not gonna happen if you don't vote for them.
Emy: 28:06 That's true.
Well, it's been great talking to you, Susan. I've learned a lot. Thank you.
Susan: 28:12 Oh, I'm glad. Thank you for asking me. I had a good time. And as I said, you made me think about things I appreciated in my life. So that was valuable, thank you.
Emy: 28:21 Oh, thank you.
Thank you for listening to First, But Last?, brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. Please join us again next week as we continue our conversations with women from around the state. You can also find us at thinkbright.org, where we continue the conversation on our blog about the history, journey and the challenges of Wyoming's intrepid women living in the Equality State. And if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show and leave us a review on iTunes. Thank you for listening.
"Fake news is a lie, a bias is the way you see the world." - Susan Simpson