With the General Assembly’s 2008 session underway, FairVote Rhode Island (fairvote.org/ri), a non-partisan organization that promotes civic engagement and election reform, has resumed the fight for the main issue on its agenda: advance voter registration for 16- and 17-year-olds.
A national nonprofit operating out of Washington since 1992, FairVote established its Rhode Island chapter last summer under the leadership of Providence native Ari Savitsky, 24, who managed David Segal’s successful state representative campaign in 2006.
Last year, a teen pre-registration bill sponsored by state Representative Ed Pacheco (D-Burrillville) passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and the House before Governor Donald Carcieri vetoed it in July, citing a need to clean up the voter rolls first (Savitsky calls this a “red herring response.”)
On January 10, Pacheco reintroduced the bill in the House with four co-signers, including Republican John Savage. State Senator Rhoda Perry will introduce the bill in the Senate.
Pre-registration for teens is part of a national FairVote campaign, Savitsky says, because it would promote a “culture of participation” among younger citizens. Registering 16- and 17-year olds before they are eligible to vote would significantly increase their likelihood of voting later, he says, asserting that more than 80 percent of registered young people voted in the 2004 presidential election. He attributes opposition to the measure to “this obnoxious myth about young people being apathetic.”
Savitsky, who graduated from Brown in 2006, argues that Rhode Island’s new high school civics curriculum and the Division of Motor Vehicles provide the “civic infrastructure … already in place” to bring teenagers into the democratic process by registering them to vote.
Pacheco says Savitsky and FairVote are major assets in the pre-registration battle, doing crucial legwork and reaching out to local media. “Having FairVote brings a new energy to the effort to get this bill through,” he says. “Some of these issues can’t come to fruition until the organized effort is behind them.”
Last month, FairVote Rhode Island published a policy briefing detailing the rationale for its proposal and suggested implementation for the bill, which is supported by almost 20 local organizations, from the Rhode Island AFL-CIO to the Brown College Republicans.
Until recently, FairVote Rhode Island has been a one-man show run out of Savitsky’s East Side apartment and local coffee shops. Last month, however, Savitsky, moved into office digs in Wayland Square and hired a college student intern. FairVote has also hosted viewing parties for the presidential primaries at local bars in an effort to drum up a following.
Segal, via e-mail, calls FairVote important for Rhode Island, because “its work cuts right to the heart of politics: it’s trying to broaden and strengthen democracy in the US by adopting very basic reforms that are recognized by most democratic societies as more conducive to public participation and real self-governance. It’s ridiculous that there aren't more groups and people pushing that agenda.”