VOTE OF CONFIDENCE

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: Eric Haynes, courtesy of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute | Portrait by Brian Sager

Vicki Kennedy and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute launch a nationwide Just Vote campaign.

One of Victoria Reggie Kennedy’s earliest memories is of listening to the election returns come over the radio in her childhood home in Louisiana and tallying the votes that would ultimately earn John F. Kennedy the presidency of the United States. “I’ve been focused and obsessed with voting since I was six years old,” says Kennedy, the wife of the late Senator Ted Kennedy. “I don’t think there’s anything more important that a citizen can do to participate in their democracy and affect change than to vote.” Today, as the co-founder and board president of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, Vicki Kennedy along with new board chair Bruce A. Percelay are launching a nationwide campaign called Just Vote.

The initiative sounds like a combination of a Nike ad and a call for democratic action, which was exactly the intent. As Percelay explained, “The idea is to make voting cool and encourage both young and old to show up at the polls.”

What began as a physical exhibit in the Edward M. Kennedy Institute designed to educate people on voting has morphed amid the coronavirus to become a virtual portal where people can access all the voting information and initiatives in the country. “We want to be a one-stop shop for easy access,” Kennedy described. “We want to make voting accessible, important and on the forefront of people’s minds.” Collaborating with other voting organizations such as Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote, music producer Jeff Ayeroff’s Rock the Vote and Peter Palandjian’s newly formed A Day for Democracy, the Just Vote campaign is aimed at simplifying data gathering on voter information including where to vote and how to get there, plus historical elements such as the women’s suffragist movement and the creation of the Nineteenth Amendment.

“We don’t have any skin in the game as to who you vote for—we just want you to vote,” indicated Percelay, who made it extremely clear that all of the institute’s endeavors are “truly nonpartisan.” Kennedy added, “For a developed democracy, we have one of the worst participation rates for eligible voters, and I think there has been a concerted effort to make people think that their vote doesn’t matter. But voting matters. One vote matters. Our representative democracy can’t function the way we hope and our country can’t live up to its ultimate promise unless everybody participates.” In addition to educating voters and encouraging participation, Just Vote is planning on launching a voter suppression hotline that would provide real-time information on any attempt at discouraging voting at any location across the country.

Just Vote is just the latest endeavor at the Kennedy Institute, which has strengthened its leadership in recent months through key appointments. In August, Martin Luther King III, the son of the legendary civil rights leader, joined the board of directors. “The Kennedy Institute’s role in the future of our democracy is vitally important, and I look forward to working with my fellow board members to reignite a passion in our citizens to understand the workings of our government and to engage in meaningful, participatory democracy,” King said. “I am especially enthusiastic about the institute’s focus on empowering citizens to exercise the right to vote, and I look forward to adding my voice and efforts to that essential work.”

The Just Vote campaign appears to be especially timely. This year is the 150th anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave African Americans the right to vote; the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote; the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which safe-guarded the Fifteenth Amendment from discrimination; and the 50th anniversary of the statute championed by Ted Kennedy and added to the Twenty-Sixth Amendment that lowered the voting age to eighteen.

In more recent news, voting—specifically mail-in voting—has been a topic of enormous controversy as the Trump administration has unleashed an all-out assault on it, from blistering Tweets by the president to the undermining of the United States Postal Service by the postmaster general. Amid a global pandemic and nationwide demonstrations over racial equity, the 2020 election is considered by many as the most consequential of our lifetime.

“I made it my absolute firm policy to never put words in [my husband’s] mouth,” Kennedy said, when asked what the late Ted Kennedy might think about the state of our democracy today. “But I heard him say at various times that a particular election was the most important in our lifetime…I can hear him repeating those words now, but maybe with more urgency.”

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