Rhode Island’s secretary of state takes an expanded view of civics

One early November morning last year, when the rest of their Woonsocket High schoolmates were sleeping late or otherwise enjoying a cherished day off for teacher conferences, 17 students from Michele Gerber’s 10th-grade social studies class reported to school as usual. After gathering in the classroom for last-minute instructions, the youngsters fanned out across the city to other schools or municipal buildings. The Woonsocket local elections were happening that day, and the students, though not old enough to vote, arrived at the polling stations ready to participate. Some students helped poll workers check off names of voters. Others assisted people who were uncertain how to work the voting machines, and a third group waited outside with clipboards to do exit polling.

Matt Brown took his passion for civic engagement
into the electoral arena by running for office.

This hands-on lesson in local elections was the final assignment for Civics 101, introduced last year at Woonsocket and Central Falls high schools by Rhode Island Secretary of State Matthew Brown. The pilot program is slated for other schools in the state this fall.

“It’s very good,” says Jonathan Pagan, 15, a Woonsocket High sophomore, of the course. “I hope they put it all across America.”

Civics 101 is part of a growing roster of initiatives that Matt Brown has launched since he took office in January 2003. The founder of the public service program City Year Rhode Island and of the voter recruitment group Democracy Compact before running for office himself, the 34-year-old Providence native is on a mission to get more people–especially young people–participating in government and in the lives of their communities.

Last year, he started a tradition he hopes to observe each spring: visiting nearly every high school in the state to give an award to a student singled out by teachers and administrators for “outstanding civic involvement.”

“One of my responsibilities as secretary of state is overseeing elections,” he says. “And I believe an important part of overseeing elections is making sure people come out and vote.”

Brown’s election initiatives also include the establishment of a statewide voter list. The current system of uncoordinated, separate lists in each city and town is “ripe for fraud and error,” he says.

‘He is very forward-looking, and he thinks big.’

In another attempt at modernization, last year he successfully proposed legislation requiring advance notice of every state and local government meeting in Rhode Island posted on the secretary of state’s Web site. The law, which is to be fully implemented this summer, supersedes a statute dating to Colonial times that merely required a notice posted on the door of the room where a meeting was to be held. Brown also is setting up an e-mail list to alert citizens who sign up in advance about upcoming public meetings in which they are interested.

“He is very forward-looking, and he thinks big,” says Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University and director of the university’s Taubman Center for Public Policy. “He wants to effect real change in the political process.”

Brown’s civic-revitalization work has started to garner national attention. Last September, the national Democratic Leadership Council named him its “New Democrat of the Week.”

E fforts to promote civic participation in the United States may be as old as American democracy. The first concerted national campaign arose in the early 1890s, after a period of widespread municipal corruption. The National Municipal League–later renamed the National Civic League–was founded by Theodore Roosevelt and Louis Brandeis, among others. The league coordinated a nationwide network of locally based reform organizations.

A century later, another reform movement was born. The impetus this time was not corruption but a growing sense of malaise. Voter participation in national elections had been declining for several decades. Disenchantment with the pervasiveness and power of big government, big media, and big business was widespread. There was also the troubling decline of many traditional civic institutions, including political parties, labor unions, fraternal organizations, and women’s clubs. Sociologist Robert Putnam struck a chord with his sad metaphor for the country’s alienation; Bowling Alone, first a 1995 magazine article and later a book, noted that bowling leagues were disbanding even as the number of individual bowlers was increasing.

A host of organizations came forward to combat these civic woes.

A host of organizations, public and private, came forward to combat these woes. Foundations commissioned studies on civic disengagement, and universities established institutes on civic revitalization. The rise of civic journalism sent newspaper editors and reporters in search of remedies for their communities’ ills. In 1990, Congress passed the National and Community Service Act, which provided grants enabling many grass-roots organizations to flourish. Three years later, AmeriCorps was established, and community service became an institutionalized part of American government.

Matt Brown, who graduated from college in 1992 and is the youngest of three children, was poised to enter public life just as this reform movement gathered momentum. His father, a physician in Providence, and his mother, who was a dean at Wheelock College in Boston, had always stressed the importance of community life, and at the age of 7, he went door-to-door with them delivering campaign fliers for presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. Later he became editor of the high school newspaper at Moses Brown School, a private Quaker school in Providence.

After graduating Columbia University, Brown went to Washington, DC, where he established connections in the emerging national service movement. He returned to Rhode Island to set up City Year Rhode Island, the state’s AmeriCorps program, which was modeled after the City Year youth service organization founded in Boston in 1988. Begun in Providence and expanded to Pawtucket, Central Falls, Woonsocket, and Newport, the growing corps of youth volunteers cleaned streets, repaired playgrounds, and tutored disadvantaged children. Many also were put to work at dozens of community-based organizations. City Year Rhode Island also gave Brown his first chance to shine.

“He had a knack for drawing star power quality,” says Casby Harrison, a Providence attorney Brown recruited Harrison to the organization’s board of directors. “He got Hillary Clinton to come talk to us. He arranged for us to host the national convention of City Year.”

Brown left for Yale Law School in 1998. While there, he got the idea for what would become the Democracy Compact. For the 2000 national election, Brown and others in the organization recruited 1,500 people who each pledged to approach 20 people–friends, family, co-workers–who had not voted in the past. The volunteers tried to persuade the nonvoters to participate in the election. Brown today proudly claims that Rhode Island had the biggest increase in participation by young voters (ages 18 to 24) of any state in the nation in 2000, though he was unable to provide specific figures. The Democracy Compact model has been adopted in two other states, Georgia and North Carolina.

Two years ago, Brown decided to take his passion for civic engagement right into the electoral arena by running for state office himself. He got the chance to do so after a lengthy round of falling dominoes. In 1999, Republican US Sen. John Chafee died in office; his son, Lincoln, then the mayor of Warwick, was named as his replacement. Believing that an appointed Republican senator could be beaten, Democratic US Rep. Robert Weygand gave up his House seat in 2000 to run against Chafee, but lost. Democratic Secretary of State James Langevin then ran for the House seat Weygand vacated, and when Langevin won, the Legislature appointed longtime state lawmaker Edward Inman III to take his place.

The 2002 Democratic primary for secretary of state was a classic insider vs. outsider contest, and Rhode Island voters were in a mood for change. Blessed with Ivy League good looks and natural charisma, Brown also proved to be a dynamic speaker, especially effective at motivating his troops (bolstered by a legion of loyal followers from the community-service organizations he built) during campaign gatherings. In a year that saw political newcomers elected as governor and attorney general, Brown prevailed in the Democratic primary with 58 percent of the vote to Inman’s 42 percent. In the November final, Brown crushed Republican Chris Stanley, a town council member from Warren, by a better than 2-1 margin. The victory gave Brown the chance to turn the secretary of state’s office, long seen as a sleepy, quasi- clerical posting, into a bully pulpit for civic participation.

The Bay State has its own toilers for the civic cause.

While Massachusetts does not have a Matt Brown to nurture a more civic-minded citizenry, the Bay State does have its share of individuals and organizations toiling for the cause. State Sen. Richard Moore, a Democrat from Uxbridge, has been a persistent voice for civic education in Massachusetts schools. President of the state’s chapter of the American Society for Public Administration, Moore has called for the establishment of a statewide commission on civic education. He also has filed bills and lobbied the state Department of Education to encourage or require school districts to teach civics.

In 2002, the Department of Education took a step in that direction when it issued curriculum frameworks that call for secondary schools to teach American government in history classes. “They are strengthening civic education –government, whatever you want to call it–through these frameworks,” says Diane Palmer, Massachusetts coordinator for the Center for Civic Education, a nonprofit organization based in Calabasas, Calif., that promotes informed participation in the democratic process in the United States and abroad.

According to the guidelines, teachers are to explore the US Constitution and its amendments as part of history instruction. Thus, when history courses come to the 1780s, they are to examine the inner workings of the Constitution. When they get to 1919 and 1920, they are to examine the amendments on Prohibition and granting women the right to vote. The frameworks, though, are guidelines, not requirements. The state does not mandate civic education, nor are there any civics questions on any of the current MCAS tests. Only about 18 school districts require a course in government or civics for graduation, according to Palmer.

Various other programs exist to encourage young people to take an interest in Massachusetts government. Once a year, state lawmakers participate in Legislators Back to School Week, visiting schools in their district and talking to students about the ways of Beacon Hill. During another annual event, Student Government Day, youngsters roam the marbled hallways of the State House and “fill in” for state officials.

Brown’s counterpart in Massachusetts, Secretary of State William Galvin, has tried to encourage voter participation by forging partnerships with a broad range of private organizations. With the League of Women Voters, Galvin puts out state election guides–a practice he inherited from his successors. His office also provides materials to Rock the Vote and World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Smackdown Your Vote!”, as well as to many local organizations that encourage ethnic and racial minorities to participate in elections. And Galvin’s office operates a toll-free telephone line that voters can call with just about any question regarding government. (Much of this information also is available on the secretary of state’s Web site.)

Voter registration in Massachusetts went up significantly eight years ago when the state’s motor voter law went into effect. In 1994, voter registration was around 3 million, where it had been for a dozen years. By the end of 1996–the first year voters could register at the Registry of Motor Vehicles–it topped 4 million. The law also allowed registration forms to be distributed by private groups and individuals, as well as candidates and political parties. “We have removed most of the impediments to registration,” Galvin says.

Voter registration now is about 3.9 million and likely to top 4 million again as the November election approaches, according to Galvin. Getting registered voters to cast ballots is another story. Figures from the Federal Election Commission show that since 1992, when 83 percent of the electorate voted, turnout has dropped steadily and significantly–down to 75 percent in 1996 and 68 percent in 2000. (Rhode Island’s turnout dropped from 82 percent to 62 percent over the same period.)

To encourage citizens to vote, Galvin’s office sends out press releases, makes radio and television public service announcements, runs paid ads, and works with corporate partners. “We do our best,” says Galvin. “We try to publicize elections as much as we can.”

Michael Kryzanek, chairman of the Bridgewater State College political science department and co-author of a recent study of political participation in Massachusetts, favors more of a marketing approach to encouraging turnout.

“I don’t see billboards,” says Kryzanek. “I don’t see much on television. I think you need some kind of catchy campaign using professional marketing techniques.”

The statewide voter registration list Brown is implementing in Rhode Island already exists in a similar form in Massachusetts. City and town voter registrars send their data to the secretary of state’s office, which maintains a central registry where duplicate registrations are detected. But a spokesperson for Galvin says that the Bay State is unlikely to adopt Rhode Island’s approach to publicizing municipal meetings on the secretary of state’s Web site, since the task of gathering information for all 351 cities and towns would be monumental. Rhode Island has only 39 municipalities.

Brown acknowledges that some reforms are easier to pull off in Little Rhody: “It’s a great place to do public service,” says Brown. “Because of the size of the state, you can put solutions in place a little more quickly. Maybe you can have more of an impact than you would in a larger state.”

W ith the 2004 presidential election fast approaching, Brown is preparing to expand Civics 101 to high schools throughout Rhode Island. This year’s election, which also includes federal and state legislative races, should excite more interest than the municipal voting held last year in Woonsocket and Central Falls.

The curriculum, which the secretary of state’s office provides to school systems that request it, includes an overview of the government process, in-class discussions of campaign issues, mock elections, and participation in a voter registration drive, as well as trips to polling places on Election Day. The course concludes with a tour of the Rhode Island State House, led by Brown and his staff.

Woonsocket High teacher Michele Gerber with
Civics 101 student Jonathan Pagan.

“It’s especially important that we do this with young people, for two reasons,” says Brown. “They are not getting involved at high rates, and, second, I think young people have something special to offer –energy, idealism, and enthusiasm that can benefit any community.”

Meet the Author
Woonsocket High School teacher Michele Gerber says she was skeptical when first presented with the curriculum. Her sophomore social studies class is made up mostly of below-average achievers, she says, and she was doubtful they would take to it. But she was pleasantly surprised.

“They got so much out of it,” says Gerber. “It became real to them. It’s one thing to talk about civics. It’s another thing to do it.”