Democracy Compact

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4.29.2000 Ex-City Year chief launches campaign to boost voting By SCOTT MacKAY Journal Staff Writer PROVIDENCE -- Everyone who seriously studies or works in politics has a pet theory about why voters have stayed home in droves on recent election days. Now comes Matt Brown, an idealistic 30-year-old Yale University Law School student who doesn't want to hear about voters turned off by negative political campaigns or young slackers too cynical to bother voting. Brown has decided it is time to try
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  4.29.2000 Ex-City Year chief launches campaign to boost voting By SCOTT MacKAYJournal Staff Writer PROVIDENCE -- Everyone who seriously studies or works in politics has a pet theoryabout why voters have stayed home in droves on recent election days. Now comes Matt Brown, an idealistic 30-year-old Yale University Law School studentwho doesn't want to hear about voters turned off by negative political campaigns or young slackers too cynical to bother voting.Brown has decided it is time to try to do something about the sharp decline in voter turnout among every group in the United States except for the World War II generation.Using Rhode Island as a model, Brown is organizing a movement that he and his allieshope can coax to the polls 75,000 more state voters in November's general election thanvoted in the last presidential election, in 1996, when about 390,000 Rhode Islanders wentto the polls.Brown and his group, the Democracy Compact, are trying to reverse a decades-long slidein voting. Nationally, the 1996 presidential election attracted 49 percent of eligiblevoters, which except for 1924 was the 20th century's lowest. Voter participation haddropped steadily since 1960, when 63 percent of voters went to the polls in the closeelection between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard M. Nixon.The strategy sounds simple, Brown said: try to reach people where they work, worship,study, and spend their spare time and convince them of the importance of voting and participating in democracy.The compact has started with a diverse group of 39 Rhode Island leaders from business,the media, and a wide spectrum of community organizations. Seed money and supporthas been provided by Taco Inc., of Cranston, The Providence Journal, the Rhode IslandFoundation, and Rhode Island chapters of the League of Women Voters.The cochairs for the compact are Dr. Pablo Rodriguez of Women & Infants Hospital anda leader in the state's Hispanic community, and Lisa Churchville, general manager of Channel 10 (WJAR). It is a big, ambitious project but something that needs to be done, said Rodriguez. The people responsible for the government we have are the voters. Bad politicians are elected by good people who don't vote.   Churchville said working with the compact will help Channel 10 to build publicinvolvement in elections. One of the biggest criticisms is that television stations don't play an active enough role in getting out issue messages, said Churchville.The usual array of modern communication technology -- the compact will have a Website and run a public relations campaign -- will be used to get out the word on voting. Butto a degree unusual in politics these days, the compact will rely on average people talkingto each other.Under a plan that begins formally in June, the compact will identify 150 people -- to becalled Democracy Fellows -- who will serve as the core group. The 150 will reflect thestate's racial, ethnic, and geographic diversity and will be trained as experts in rekindlinginterest in democracy and voting. Each will recruit 25 more people willing to work on thevoter turnout effort, for a total of 3,750. These 3,750 people will be called DemocracyCaptains. Each will be charged with getting signed pledge cards from 20 new voters --defined as those who did not vote in the 1996 election -- who vow to go to the polls thisyear. If all goes as planned, 75,000 will sign cards and vote in November.This kind of personal voter contact campaign isn't new; it has been used for years bygroups such as labor unions, antiabortion activists and political parties. It was perhapsmost effectively employed by the urban political bosses early in the 20th century, menwho didn't need a computer list to know who lived in their neighborhoods and how theyvoted. BROWN'S BACKGROUND is in the youth volunteerism movement. Before headingoff to law school two years ago, he was executive director of Rhode Island's City Year  project, the volunteer organization that links teenagers and young adults with community projects and focuses on improving urban schools. Now Brown is trying to transfer that spirit of volunteerism to voting. One of the ironiesabout young people, particularly college students, is that volunteering on community projects is at an all-time high, while voting participation among the young has plunged.Just 11 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds voted in the 1996 presidential election, Brownsaid. That's just a pathetic number, said Brown, who is taking a semester off to work on thecompact. But it isn't because all young people are lazy and cynical. People in Habitat for Humanity are willing to work building houses for people, and people work in all sorts of community projects. We want to harness some of that spirit and enthusiasm for voting. What is distinctive about the Democracy Compact is that it is designed to be aggressivelynonpartisan. There are no elected officials on the steering committee. There are noDemocratic, Republican, Cool Moose, Reform, or any other party officials involved.Brown himself dodges questions about whether he is a Republican or Democrat; heworked for Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's effort to win approval of national  service legislation in Congress in 1994, but also worked closely with the late RepublicanSen. John H. Chafee on legislation promoting volunteerism. I can't emphasize enough that we intend to keep this a nonpartisan movement, Brownsaid. Rebuilding the civic culture and using voting to get people involved in communityand political issues is the aim, he said. When people don't vote, their issues are not part of the political agenda, said Brown. Itis no secret that the elderly, a group with high voter participation, get such issues as preserving Social Security and Medicare to the top of the agenda. (For the record, the Volvo that Brown drives has bumper stickers promoting Atty. Gen.Sheldon Whitehouse's 1998 campaign, and City Year, and the independence of NorthernIreland.)That is not to say all the participants are bereft of political agendas. Rodriguez, for example, is one of the few doctors in the state who perform abortions, and in the pastdecade he has become one of Rhode Island's most prominent advocates of protectingwomen's access to legal abortions, sometimes testifying on abortion legislation at theState House.Brown's studious nonpartisan stance flies in the face of what many people believe is aneffective strategy.Conventional political wisdom says that any effort that gets more people to the polls ismore likely to help the Democrats than the Republicans. That is because those who tendto stay home on Election Day tend to be younger, poorer, and more likely to be membersof minority groups than faithful voters.In Rhode Island, it's a bit more complicated than that, said Darrell West, BrownUniversity political science professor and a member of the compact steering committee. Rhode Island is reliably Democratic in presidential elections, but not at other levels, West said.Thus, while increasing turnout in cities will probably help Democrats, an increase insuburban voters adds votes for Republican candidates.Curtis Gans, an expert on voter turnout and director of the Washington-based Committeefor the Study of the American Electorate, commended the compact, particularly the personal contact strategy, but said it is no panacea for the massive decline in voting. It is a worthy effort, but in and of itself it will not reverse the decline of voting inAmerica, said Gans.Close elections where voters believe issues are at stake would help, Gans said, because  those races attract more voters.One of the reasons for the low turnout in 1996 was the view -- fueled by public opinion polls -- that the contest between President Clinton and Bob Dole, his Republicanchallenger, was a blowout and that individual votes did not matter much.But West said he believes the 2000 presidential contest between Vice President Al Goreand Texas Gov. George W. Bush is shaping up as much closer. In Rhode Island, a tightU.S. Senate race for the seat held by Republican Lincoln Chafee would also help fuelturnout. I told Matt he had a pretty good chance of reaching his goal, West said. He picked agood year for the experiment. To contact the Democracy Compact, call 331-2298, ext  . 14. 4.29.2000 The Democracy CompactBill Allen, executive vice president, United Way of Southeastern New England Tomas Avila, Policy Analyst Center for Hispanic Advocacy and Policy Rick Battistoni, executive director, Feinstein Institute for Public Service Kip Bergstrom , executive director, Rhode island Economic Policy Council Nicole Boothman Shepard, director, Rhode Island Service Alliance Bernie Beaudrea, executive director, Rhode Island Community Food Bank  Elizabeth Burke Bryant, director, KidsCount Lisa Churchville, general manager, WJAR  Barbara Cottam, senior vice president, Citizens Bank  Peter Damon,  president emeritus, Bank of Newport Jim Dodge,  president, Providence Energy Corporation Nancy Gewirtz, executive director, Poverty Institute Jim Hagan, executive director, Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce
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