URI Suffrage Series

URI Suffrage Series panelists Rep. Justine Caldwell (List. 30 –East Greenwich, West Greenwich), political consultant Kate Coyne McCoy and political scientist Stella Rouse (University of Maryland) discussing contemporary initiatives to empower women, as well as millennials and Latinos, in politics. 

KINGSTON — The University of Rhode Island continued its Suffrage Centennial Lecture Series last week with the importance of getting out the vote — especially among young people. 

Too many young people feel disillusioned with the political process, however, according to Rep. Justine Caldwell (Dist. 30 – East Greenwich, West Greenwich), and don’t see the importance of voting. 

“That is one of the huge barriers we need to move past,” Caldwell said. “If any particular community — if young people don’t vote or if women don’t vote — then your interests and experiences are just not represented at the Statehouse or on the town council, or on the school board or Congress.”

During this past campaign cycle, Caldwell was particularly interested in reaching the young voter community. Although she felt confident the state would see a huge uptick in the number of voters coming out, largely due to the contentious presidential campaign, Caldwell worried they might not pay attention to the down ballot questions.

In order to make sure young voters in East Greenwich and West Greenwich weren’t going to leave those ovals blank, Caldwell sent a letter to every voter under the age of 30, letting them know what was at stake in this race. The URI Alumna said she and her opponent were ideologically opposed on many key issues, and she wanted to highlight that for young voters.

According to Caldwell, her opponent criticized these efforts, but she received an incredible amount of feedback from this community — many of which called to tell her they had just voted for the first time in their lives. Criticizing such a move, she said, which highlighted areas of concern for many young people like climate change and gun control, may be part of the reason for disillusionment in government. 

And while Millennials and Gen Z may get a bad wrap for being disengaged or spending too much money on avocado toast to buy a home, University of Maryland Associate Professor Stella Rouse doesn’t believe they deserve these stereotypes. Her research shows that young people just engage differently. 

“Voting is only one aspect of political engagement,” Rouse said. “These characterizations are missing a nuance that’s particular to these young generations. They’re less engaged by conventional measures, but they value representation and political outcomes.”

Compared to other generations, Millennials and Gen Z are much more engaged citizens when it comes to taking individual action, like volunteering or protesting. Her research also shows that unlike previous generations, Millennials appear more likely to remain liberal with age — something she attributes, in part, to living through multiple recessions. 

Notably, this panel discussion took place days before Rhode Island’s special election on Tuesday, which asked Ocean State residents to authorize $400 million in spending — $57.3 million of which is meant to go towards continuing renovations on the university’s fine arts center. 

In addition to getting out the vote among young people, panelist Kate Coyne McCoy of KMC Consulting emphasized the importance of having women on the ballot for them to support. For more than two decades, McCoy has been running around the country and all over the world, for that matter, to help get women elected at all levels of government. 

“My goal is to make the world a better place by electing women,” McCoy said.

For the past 25 years, McCoy said she’s started her day the exact same way. 

“The first thing I do is look at the news to see which male members of Congress have taken ill or died — and I do that because I want to replace them with women,” she said. 

One of the major obstacles to getting women on the ballot, according to McCoy, is that she has to recruit them. Too many women think they’re not qualified enough to hold office, but she urges them to turn on C-SPAN and “look who’s running your country.”

“You are qualified, and very selfishly, I don’t want to sit and wait another 10 years for you to finish your master’s degree or finish this Ph.D. you’re working on,” she said. “I want you to run now.”

Women also are not asked nearly as often as men by party apparatuses or coalitions to run for office, or they think they don’t have enough time to serve in public office because of their family or career obligations. 

“Women are grossly underrepresented in every seat of government,” McCoy said. “And we know that women are at the table, issues like healthcare, childcare and income justice and social justice issues are addressed in a very different way.”

“I’m not saying you should vote for someone just because they’re a woman,” she said, but that they’re able to address some issues in “ways men just don’t.”

She made a plea directly to female panelist viewers that evening, encouraging them to vote and even offering her services.

“If you’re sitting here watching this, and you’ve ever had the glimmer of a thought that you could run for office, you should do it,” McCoy said. “If you need help, call me. I will help you.”

“We’ve got to move more women into government spaces, into leadership positions,” she continued, “and that can only happen if the women sitting, watching this, get off the couch.”

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