MASSACHUSETTS HAS BEEN long recognized as possessing unique capacities at producing innovations that have changed the nation and the world. Whether its residents are especially gifted or they take advantage of the region’s rich institutional and financial resources, the Bay State distinguishes itself as an incubator for new ideas that work. Such new ideas and ingenuity have reshaped our national industries, re-conceptualized social and community practices, and definitively reformed public policies.
Certainly, this was the case in the 1970s and ’80s, when our propensity for innovation could be seen in the emergence of the region’s technology industries. Route 128 companies such as Digital Equipment Corp., Data General, Apollo Computer, and Wang Laboratories whetted the nation’s appetite for computer technology, at the same time fueling the Massachusetts Miracle. Talents at places like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would develop the Internet, an invention unparalleled in the sphere of knowledge transfer and global communications.
In the area of crime, Massachusetts also showed itself to be a pathfinder. The Ten Point Coalition’s triangulated approach to summoning African-American faith institutions, law enforcement agencies, and the justice system into concerted efforts against youth violence is a model replicated across the country.
And more recently, the emergence of the bio-sciences industries in the Commonwealth beginning in the 1990s will mark this region as a leader on a new frontier of biological discovery and knowledge.
Yet, while Massachusetts has been in the forefront of new developments in technology, public policy, and science, our state’s efforts in the area of civic innovation have been feeble and anemic. When it comes to producing democracy-friendly solutions that ensure greater civic participation, enhance democratic commitment among new generations of citizens, and protect against electoral inequalities, our Commonwealth has done little. Why has Massachusetts, the so-called cradle of democracy at this nation’s founding, shown so little of its genius in the realm of democratic participation and civic engagement?
In terms of the rituals of democracy—voting and running for office—the numbers tell a sad story of public life in the Commonwealth. Voter participation in non-presidential statewide general elections has fallen dramatically, from more than 80 percent in 1962 to 52 percent in 1998 (bouncing back, only slightly, to 56 percent in 2002). While voter participation rates have fluctuated up and down over the course of the past half-century, the general trend has been downward, with each peak lower than the last.
To be sure, election contests involving candidates with strong (or polarizing) personalities increase voter participation. Hence, in the governor’s race between John Silber and William Weld in 1990, voting among Bay Staters spiked upward to 75 percent of registered voters, a modern high. Similarly, high voter turnout will also characterize the national election in November, when the fiercely contested presidential race will turn out voters in significant numbers. But these moments of political drama are more and more the exceptions, not the norm, providing testament to the waning and increasingly episodic civic interest among Massachusetts voters.
Proof of our civic dissolution is all the more true for young people. In Boston’s 2003 city council election, less than 15 percent of youth between 18 and 24 years old voted, one third less than the overall turnout, according to a Boston Globe report. Nationally, voter participation for youth is consistently 5 to 15 percentage points lower than average, and 50 percent below their 45-to-65-year-old counterparts. Voter participation in the 18-to-34 cohort reached its nadir at 29 percent in 2000, the lowest in a presidential race since 1972, when the voting age was lowered to 18.
It’s not only voters who are dropping out of the civic sphere. It’s candidates, too. According to Massachusetts Common Cause and the Boston-based Money in Politics Project, fewer people are electing to run for office on the state level. The Bay State ranked 49th in the nation in contested state representative races in 2002. Thanks to Gov. Mitt Romney’s efforts to break up Democratic hegemony in the House and Senate, the number of contested races this year is higher than in recent years (see State of the States), but still represents barely more than half the seats in the Legislature; even with this year’s bumper crop of candidates, the Republicans are ceding 40 percent of legislative seats to the Democrats without a fight. The trend is as sobering as it is conclusive: Citizens in Massachusetts no longer deem elected office an attractive career or public service option.
Recent reforms have proved incapable of improving our civic condition. Even gadgets like the Clean Elections Law and the modestly successful redistricting case in Boston this year have provided no cure for our civic malaise. The Clean Elections Law, which sought to limit exorbitant campaign spending and create a level playing field between incumbents and challengers, took its mandate from a vote of the people in a 1998 statewide ballot question. But when this law was subsequently dismantled by the Legislature, the public seemed not to care. Clean Elections failed not only because of legislative hostility, but because the campaign’s proponents did not grasp that money is not the overriding barrier to electoral participation. Voters are also motivated to participate in elections by other factors, including their comprehension of the political process, their ability to discern the fine points of public policy, competition in electoral races, and unhindered access to the voting process. Leaders of the Clean Elections initiative, while well meaning, could have benefited from a deeper understanding of the many variables depressing the civic soul.
Toward a new civic agenda
So, against this backdrop of civic crisis, piecemeal solutions, and dubious strategies, what is to be done? Surely, no single approach will be a panacea. But a comprehensive strategic plan could arrest downward civic trends and lay a foundation for civic revival. Such a strategy, equipped with innovative approaches favoring specific civic policies, civic literacy, and electoral justice, would be a fitting starting place. New Democracy Coalition proposes a comprehensive plan consisting of three parts: civic policy, civic literacy, and electoral justice.
Civic policy. Coherent policies supporting voter access represent one immediate response to the state’s civic woes. The place to start is modifying voter registration laws that are antiquated and no longer relevant.
Specifically, Election Day registration could ameliorate lagging voter participation trends in this state. Why impose an onerous 20-day deadline before elections as the cutoff for registration? By showing proof of residency and taking a sworn federal oath, eligible citizens could be allowed the right to vote immediately, on Election Day, even if they had not registered in advance.
Election Day registration is now in place in six others states: Maine, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Idaho, Wyoming, and New Hampshire. It is hardly abused, and voter participation in those states ranges from 10 to 14 percentage points higher than states that do not have this policy.
With Election Day registration, Massachusetts could immediately realize higher youth voter turnout in local, statewide, and presidential elections. In other states where this law is in place, political participation among young people (between the ages of 18 and 24) is 10 percent higher than in states without it, according to Demos, a New York-based think tank focused on election policy.
This law would also be a boon to renters, who tend to move within a city or region more frequently than homeowners. No longer would they have to visit City Hall to change their registration every time they change apartments. These voters could simply appear at the polling place on Election Day in their new neighborhood and claim their right to vote.
As for the traditional concerns opponents have raised about Election Day registration: There’s no reason to think that same-day registration gives an advantage to one party over the other, as studies show that Republicans are as likely to make use of this law as Democrats or independents. Nor does this law work to the advantage of political challengers over incumbents. And election fraud, in the form of repeated voting, is almost nonexistent. The obvious benefit of this law is that it allows people who are inspired to vote on Election Day to do so, whether or not they were motivated to register weeks or months earlier.
Civic literacy. Another way to systematically foster public engagement is by increasing citizen knowledge of democracy and civic issues. Those who are civically literate are more likely to be civically active. Yet, currently, there is no formal civics requirement for young people in Massachusetts’s public schools, a singular strategy to expose young people to core democratic ideas. Without civics instruction, how do we expect to engage a new generation of active citizens in their communities after they graduate from the public schools?
There is a growing movement to include civics in graduation requirements for high school students across the nation, but Massachusetts has not been in the vanguard. This has left more than 60,000 students graduating here every year without a formalized orientation in civic obligations, rites, responsibilities, and procedures. In Boston, our capital city, civics instruction in public high schools ceased in 1972.
In contrast to our state’s lack of effort to prepare youth for public life, 38 other states require civics in high school. They do this because they recognize the nexus between civic literacy and the perseverance of democracy. The rationale for civics instruction in high school is as simple as it is convincing: Young people who are taught about the ways democratic government works better understand their role as citizens and as stewards of democracy.
Certainly the reverse is true. According to national studies, youth that go unexposed to civic ideas are less likely to vote regularly or engage in community affairs. Fundamental knowledge about the history of the franchise and social movements is critical to the development of mature civic identities. Students need exposure to the Magna Carta, the Articles of Confederation, the US Constitution, as well as the suffrage and abolitionist movements, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the 26th Amendment, which conferred the right to vote to 18-year-olds.
Reintroducing a formal civics curriculum into the state educational framework is a matter of importance. Lawmakers concerned about the state of the citizenry can amend the Education Reform Act of 1993 to make civics a core requirement for high school graduation.
Electoral justice. If we want to encourage voter participation, we must increase our focus on ensuring equality and fairness at the polls on Election Day. When voters experience confusion, misdirection, or intimidation at the polls, that’s electoral injustice. Unfortunately, such has been the case in elections across the Commonwealth in recent years. A newly instated voter identification rule in Lawrence two years ago prompted concerns that Hispanic voters would be targeted to produce documentation in a situation where the language barrier may also be formidable. This could result in an intimidating experience for an otherwise eligible and qualified voter. Polling stations abruptly changed in Worcester two years ago, resulting in confusion among voters. And as recently as the 2004 primary election, voters in Boston’s wards 12 and 18 stood discouraged as the city’s new voting machines malfunctioned.
Voting is a sacred civic ritual, which must be preserved and protected. There are a number of measures that can protect against electoral injustice, starting with the poll workers who are employed by town and city election departments across the state. Whether a voter returns in the next election—or even succeeds in casting a vote in this one—can depend on how he or she is treated by the people working the polls. Many poll workers are courteous and helpful, but some can be obstructive, uncooperative, and—at worst—prejudiced.
Statewide training, as well as strict scrutiny in recruitment and selection, will improve the caliber of poll workers—and the Election Day experience for voters. A diverse force of well-trained and well-paid poll workers will eliminate anxiety for minority voters. At best, these changes could improve the quality of services received by all voters. At very least, they will ensure that voters across the state will receive similar treatment, protecting against errors and unevenly applied standards.
Another element of electoral justice is mechanical. Voting machines that break down frustrate voters and, in the worst-case scenario, rob citizens of their votes. Faulty equipment undermines the public’s faith in elections, fomenting cynicism and spoiling the democratic process. A standing commission is needed to identify and promote the use of the most modern, reliable, and user-friendly voting machines. A commission dedicated to safeguarding the integrity of voting machines will protect against all sorts of election irregularities, especially those likely to occur in poor and minority communities.
Finally, electoral justice can be interpreted in a broader fashion, in that low civic involvement can be an injustice in and of itself. In communities long alienated from participation, it may not be enough to remove barriers and correct unjust practices. It may be necessary to take active steps to re-energize a discouraged citizenry.
Creation of a funding entity that can respond to community needs where civic participation is low would support the state’s overall civic health and combat electoral injustice. Called the Democracy Fund, this state-created agency would bring technical assistance and funding for participatory initiatives to communities suffering low voter engagement or other civic crises. The revival of the ³town hall forum² in civically depressed areas is just one strategy worth fostering. Special democracy-informing projects for youth, such as that produced at the CIVICS summer project at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, deserve attention and replication around the state. And certainly voter registration, voter education, and Election Day turnout efforts by the organization Dunk the Vote would benefit cities and towns across the state, were its nonpartisan efforts funded and expanded.
The impact of such a Democracy Fund would be enhanced by creation of Civic Empowerment Zones. These zones, based on the Economic Empowerment Zones implemented during the Clinton administration, would focus efforts to build civic capital where it is most needed. Just as Economic Empowerment Zones facilitated economic growth among poor and underserved communities, Civic Empowerment Zones would pump-prime civic growth and development.
The Democracy Fund could support initiatives within Civic Empowerment Zones with funding of $3 million per year for 10 consecutive years. Such an allocation represents approximately 0.5 percent of the current year’s budget surplus. Over a 10-year period, $30 million would represent a respectable investment in rebuilding the state’s civic infrastructure.
Nothing short of a three-tiered approach to re-engaging citizens through civic policies, civic literacy, and electoral justice will reverse the negative trends that plague public life in Massachusetts. Such an approach is envisioned by the Massachusetts Democracy Compact, an effort forged by Boston-based New Democracy Coalition, which consists of policy and advocacy groups, the faith community, housing and youth organizations, elected officials, and lay citizens.
As a state often in the forefront of innovation, Massachusetts can inspire the nation toward civic renewal through collective and collaborative efforts. With determination and imagination, we can create a new democracy in Massachusetts, and show the nation—and the world —how it is done.
Kevin C. Peterson is a senior fellow at the Center for Collaborative Leadership at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is founder and director of the Boston-based New Democracy Coalition.