The Edward M. Kennedy Institute had been working on an exhibit focused on voting — the history, the process — when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The nonprofit institute still hasn’t reopened its doors to the public. Like so many other businesses and institutions, it was forced to pivot to a virtual plan. But the voting initiative has become far more ambitious in scope as a result.
Later this month, the institute will launch a national campaign dubbed Just Vote, aimed specifically at lifting voter participation beyond the country’s relatively lackluster levels. (The 56 percent participation rate in the 2016 presidential election ranks the US among the bottom of highly developed, democratic countries.) The first phase will involve a virtual exhibit tailored for younger adults and college students.
The institute is embarking on a multimillion-dollar fund-raising effort. It’s also lining up some high-profile supporters for the Just Vote campaign — starting with Martin Luther King III. King, son of the famed civil rights activist and a longtime friend of the Kennedy family, recently joined the institute’s board.
“My father used to say, a voteless people is a powerless people,” said King, a human rights leader who served as a page for the senator in the mid-1970s. “One of the most powerful steps we can take is the short step to the ballot box. Whatever I can do to help this process, which is already gaining momentum, I’m honored to be able to do so.”
King called the current participation rates “almost embarrassing” for the country. “There’s clearly a lot of work that has to be done,” he said.
King said the tremendous participation in civil rights rallies this year gives him hope about voter participation in the fall elections. But he’s not taking anything for granted, especially not during a pandemic when many voters will opt to participate by mail instead of going to the polls in person.
The effort is being spearheaded by Vicki Kennedy, the late senator’s wife and the institute board’s president, and Bruce Percelay, a local real estate executive who recently became board chairman. The hope is to create a central online clearinghouse and an app for voting-related news, information, and history as well as live and recorded discussions about the issue. Percelay said the institute is also thinking about setting up a hot line that allows people to report examples of voter suppression or other irregularities.
“This is probably one of the most important subjects in the United States at this point,” Percelay said. “We plan to play an important role and be a facilitator. We want to be the portal for all voting matters in the United States.”
The Kennedy name, of course, has strong associations with the Democratic Party. But Percelay said the institute has people from both political parties on its board, and this Just Vote effort will be nonpartisan.
“We’re not telling anyone who to vote for,” King said. “We just want to encourage people to vote.”
Kennedy, a lawyer at Greenberg Traurig, said civic engagement has always been a big part of the EMK Institute’s mission. She hopes to eventually have a physical exhibit devoted to the topic of voting, along the lines of what was originally planned. With the institute’s financial dependence on school visits, the timing of its physical reopening remains unclear.
However, Kennedy said the institute can reach far more people with a virtual exhibit than it can with a physical one.
The pandemic, Kennedy said, has laid bare the economic and health care disparities in the country, underscoring the importance of voter participation.
She realizes a number of other efforts are already underway, and hopes that the Just Vote project can help connect them. They range from the When We All Vote campaign, started by Michelle Obama and others in 2018, to the A Day for Democracy project launched this week by Boston businessman Peter Palandjian, to persuade employers to play their part in getting more people to vote.
“As far as we’re concerned, the more the merrier,” Kennedy said. “One plus one is more than two. … I think there’s an awareness that it’s the most important thing people can do.”