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Ex-City Year chief launches campaign to boost voting

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 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 allies
hope can coax to the polls 75,000 more state voters in November's general election than
voted in the last presidential election, in 1996, when about 390,000 Rhode Islanders went
to the polls.

Brown and his group, the Democracy Compact, are trying to reverse a decades-long slide
in voting. Nationally, the 1996 presidential election attracted 49 percent of eligible
voters, which except for 1924 was the 20th century's lowest. Voter participation had
dropped steadily since 1960, when 63 percent of voters went to the polls in the close
election 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 support
has been provided by Taco Inc., of Cranston, The Providence Journal, the Rhode Island
Foundation, and Rhode Island chapters of the League of Women Voters.

The cochairs for the compact are Dr. Pablo Rodriguez of Women & Infants Hospital and
a 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 public
involvement" 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 Web
site and run a public relations campaign -- will be used to get out the word on voting. But
to a degree unusual in politics these days, the compact will rely on average people talking
to each other.

Under a plan that begins formally in June, the compact will identify 150 people -- to be
called "Democracy Fellows" -- who will serve as the core group. The 150 will reflect the
state's racial, ethnic, and geographic diversity and will be trained as experts in rekindling
interest in democracy and voting. Each will recruit 25 more people willing to work on the
voter turnout effort, for a total of 3,750. These 3,750 people will be called "Democracy
Captains." 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 this
year. 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 by
groups such as labor unions, antiabortion activists and political parties. It was perhaps
most effectively employed by the urban political bosses early in the 20th century, men
who didn't need a computer list to know who lived in their neighborhoods and how they

BROWN'S BACKGROUND is in the youth volunteerism movement. Before heading

off 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 ironies
about 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, Brown

"That's just a pathetic number," said Brown, who is taking a semester off to work on the
compact. "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 aggressively

nonpartisan. There are no elected officials on the steering committee. There are no
Democratic, Republican, Cool Moose, Reform, or any other party officials involved.

Brown himself dodges questions about whether he is a Republican or Democrat; he

worked 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 Republican
Sen. John H. Chafee on legislation promoting volunteerism.

"I can't emphasize enough that we intend to keep this a nonpartisan movement," Brown
said. Rebuilding the civic culture and using voting to get people involved in community
and political issues is the aim, he said.

"When people don't vote, their issues are not part of the political agenda," said Brown. "It
is 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 Northern

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 past
decade he has become one of Rhode Island's most prominent advocates of protecting
women's access to legal abortions, sometimes testifying on abortion legislation at the
State House.

Brown's studious nonpartisan stance flies in the face of what many people believe is an
effective strategy.

Conventional political wisdom says that any effort that gets more people to the polls is
more likely to help the Democrats than the Republicans. That is because those who tend
to stay home on Election Day tend to be younger, poorer, and more likely to be members
of minority groups than faithful voters.

In Rhode Island, it's a bit more complicated than that, said Darrell West, Brown
University 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 in
suburban voters adds votes for Republican candidates.

Curtis Gans, an expert on voter turnout and director of the Washington-based Committee
for 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 in
America," 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 Republican
challenger, was a blowout and that individual votes did not matter much.

But West said he believes the 2000 presidential contest between Vice President Al Gore
and Texas Gov. George W. Bush is shaping up as much closer. In Rhode Island, a tight
U.S. Senate race for the seat held by Republican Lincoln Chafee would also help fuel

"I told Matt he had a pretty good chance of reaching his goal," West said. "He picked a
good year for the experiment."

To contact the Democracy Compact, call 331-2298, ext . 14.


The Democracy Compact

Bill 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

Peter Hocking, executive director, Swearer Center for Public Service

Liz Hollander, executive director, Campus Compact

Dean Holt, president, Fleet Bank

Diana Lam, superintendent, Providence School Department

Dennis Langley, executive director, Urban League

Joseph Le, executive director, Socio-Economic Development Corporation

Fred Lohrum, president emeritus, BankBoston

Patricia Martinez, executive director, Progreso Latino

Jim Miller, executive director. State Council of Churches

Cliff Monteiro, executive director, NAACP

Jyothi Nagraj, executive director, City Year

George Nee, secretary-treasurer, AFL-CIO

Pablo Rodriguez, M.D., Women and Infants Hospital

Hillary Salmons, president, Providence League of Women Voters

Sovann Sam, president, Cambodian Society

Bill Shuey, executive director, International Institute

Delia Smidt, partnership specialist, Census 2000

Chery and Roland Snead, Banneker Industries

Keith Stokes, executive director, Newport County Chamber of Commerce

Howard Sutton, publisher, The Providence Journal

Sammy Vaughan , pastor, Saint James Baptist Church

Darrell Waldron, executive director, Rhode Island Indian Council

Darrell West , professor of political science, Brown University

Phil West, executive director, Common Cause

John Hazen White, president, Taco

Jack Yena, president, Johnson & Wales University

Copyright © 2000 The Providence Journal Company