This is what's next

John Marion

Executive Director, Common Cause

I was riding my bike when the truck with the assortment of Rhode Island themed bumper stickers passed me. There, in the middle of a forest of Rhode Island’s idiosyncrasies, was a little one with two words:


You’ve got to be a pretty serious Rhode Island history nut to get the meaning. Thomas Wilson Dorr led an armed insurrection against Rhode Island’s government in 1842. While his rebellion did not last long, and Dorr eventually served time in jail and died a premature death, his legacy is still with those of us who work on voting rights. One of Dorr’s primary demands was expanding the right to vote in Rhode Island by ending the property requirement (at least for white men).

When we think of the expansion of the franchise of course we focus on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s or the suffragettes who first met in Seneca Falls in 1848. The Dorr Rebellion is perhaps Rhode Island’s most important contribution to the centuries-long move toward making ours a more inclusive democracy. It’s wonderful to see Rhode Islanders celebrate our role in this fight, even in the form of a little bumper sticker.

Making our democracy more inclusive didn’t stop when Rhode Island acceded to Dorr’s demands, or the 19th Amendment was ratified, or the Voting Rights Act was signed into law. Democracy is an ever evolving form of government, and Rhode Island must continue the work of Dorr, Anthony, King, and all who followed.

There are many ways to do this, but the simplest is to embrace Dorr’s spirit by lowering the institutional barriers to the ballot box. We’ve made gains in recent years, most notably by choosing to restore, in 2006, voting rights to those who’ve completed their sentences and creating a system for online voter registration in 2016. There is still much more to be done, however, to facilitate and encourage participation. Our state still lacks proven reforms such as same day voter registration and in-person early voting.

But in many ways the challenge isn’t just how to make a system where it is easier for those who are eligible to participate. Rather, it’s to create a system where everyone wants to participate. The goal is to make a more inclusive democracy. That will take more than just lowering barriers so every citizen can get across the threshold; it will require us to hold the door for them so they feel welcome.

The millennial generation has become the largest in our country’s history, but their participation rates suggest a detachment from our political system. If we do not encourage their participation, at the least we will see voter turnout continue to decline and at the most we will witness an erosion of legitimacy as the governed grow more distant from their government.

The stakes are high - if participation continues to decline so will trust in government and ultimately the legitimacy that holds up our institutions. That’s why questions of democracy are the first order questions in our society. Before we can solve the seemingly intractable problems of climate, education, or poverty, we need to fix our democracy.

The next century requires us to break out of our boxes and be creative about how citizens engage their government. That means expanding the democracy movement beyond the usual suspects by explaining the importance of our work to the issues others chose to prioritize. It also requires that we look beyond the standard formula, largely legislative and judicial victories, that we have used to mark progress in the last century.

I believe we once again stand on the cusp of a revolution in our democracy. Change will happen not because it can, but because it must for us to continue to thrive as a republic.


One Union Station
Providence, RI 02903


(401) 274-4564

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