Manuel DeBrito, election commissioner for New Bedford, is concerned about declining voter turnout — a problem not only in the city, but nationwide. He says he worries about the erosion of confidence in fair and safe elections, and voters lacking basic understanding of how they work.
As a step toward reversing these trends, he has created the NB Votes Youth Empowerment Program, a collaboration among the New Bedford Election Commission, the Mayor’s Youth Council, and students from New Bedford and Bishop Stang high schools. A strong believer in the positive impact of mentorship, DeBrito sees the potential for teens to spark interest in elections in younger students, who might then share their enthusiasm with their parents.
To begin with, a number of high school students were trained Oct. 15 as poll workers. While having first-hand experience with the balloting process and working alongside experienced poll workers on Election Day, Nov. 8, they’ll also be earning a day’s pay.
In December, after the midterm election is in the record books, teens will visit fifth graders in city schools — DeBrito says he hopes to work with Gomes, Hathaway, and Brooks schools to start — to teach them about elections and why being an engaged citizen is important. Later, he says he plans a tour of City Hall and a mock election for them, along with a visit to the Statehouse in the spring for teens who participated in the program.
DeBrito became election commissioner in August 2017, after spending years working in corporate finance in Boston. Until COVID-19 derailed community programs, he was coordinator of Mount Carmel CYO basketball and leader of A’s B4 J’s, a program to teach life skills through basketball, as well as active in other mentorship programs.
DeBrito tells The Light about the innovative program and why he’s passionate about mentoring young people to become actively participating citizens as well as well-rounded achievers.
New Bedford Light: Tell me about the NB Votes Youth Empowerment Program.
Manuel DeBrito: The year COVID hit, I had met with the Mayor’s Youth Council to introduce myself. The idea was to have those kids come with me to elementary schools. … [They would] introduce elections and the whole thought process behind the elections. Then we would bring elementary school kids here [to City Hall]. We would have a mock election — “What’s your favorite color M&M?,” let’s say — and then have a tour of City Hall, come visit my office, the mayor’s office, the City Council, just to expose them a little more.
I want those elementary school kids to go home and talk to their parents, [to ask] “Why aren’t you voting?” When I ask elementary school kids, “How many of you plan on voting when you’re old enough?” — 100%. When I go into the high schools, “How many of you plan on voting?” — 50%. College kids, out of a classroom, I’ll get two hands. So we’re losing them. The idea was to keep them engaged along the way. …
COVID completely killed [the plan] … So I wanted to bring it back this year, but the idea was to also have the high school kids work the polls.
… The idea is for these kids to become involved in the city, in the community, and want to give back, because they’re super talented. What do we have to offer these talented kids for them to stay or for them to return to the city? And maybe — who knows? — maybe one of these elementary school kids or high school kids will end up running for office or end up staying and giving back to the community. We need that. We lose a lot of talented people, because what do we have to offer as far as employment, as far as opportunity? … This was my idea just to get people involved, and I’m big on working with the youth. It’s refreshing for me.
NBL: Voter turnout for the primary in September was about 13%, not atypical in New Bedford in recent years. In your opinion, what is the No. 1 factor in the dismal turnout?
MD: Misinformation right now is huge. The distrust is just off the charts. … That’s nationwide, though; that’s not just New Bedford.
Lack of interest. I’m not going to say lack of quality candidates, but the amount of candidates with fresh faces. A lot of it is the same folks. Some people lose interest after a while. They feel like, “If I go vote, it’s going to be the same old, same old.” I think a lot of people feel that, so that’s part of it.
But misinformation and distrust in government is huge, and it just makes my job super challenging. People don’t understand the process, and I can try to explain to folks like, “Hey, fraud isn’t a thing, really.” … My door is always open. If you want information, you can call me. I’m here — open door policy. Let’s talk.
NBL: Civic literacy is in decline across America. Is this program filling a void in the teaching of civics?
MD: I think so. We’re teaching — we’re not teaching what to do and how to feel — but the importance of government, the reach of government.
How many people actually know the process of elections? People think they know. You have all this fraud talk, but people don’t understand the process and how many checks and balances there are, and how much security there is on the back end … people just assume that they know, but they don’t. So, we’ll be exposing these kids to that in a way.
They have to go through training. They’ll be able to see some of the laws and some of the rules that the average person probably doesn’t know — about electioneering, let’s say. You know, you can’t wear a [partisan] hat or a button, or campaign within 150 feet of a polling location. A lot of people don’t know that. People will show up with their hat or their shirt [and say] “Oh, freedom of speech.” Well, that’s not how it works. There’s laws regarding wearing that material inside a polling location. You just can’t do it.
NBL: Were you an engaged voter as a young adult?
MD: Yes and no. I think I had different times where, you know, I was and I wasn’t. And again, I don’t think I understood. I know my parents would mention it. I think maybe if I had someone outside of the household, echoing this message and talking to me, not an adult, not my parents — because, how many things that my parents told me that I didn’t listen to that I wish I did [laughing]. You know, whether it be credit or finances or relationships or whatever, sometimes we tune those folks out. So having a role model, a mentor, would have been huge for me.
NBL: Do you hope to make this an ongoing project?
MD: We’d like to get into more schools — hopefully every elementary school — as part of maybe their curriculum at some point. We’ll see. Maybe other cities and towns will reach out — “Hey, what’s the blueprint here? How do we do this?” I just had a student from Harvard reach out, and she wants to volunteer. … I haven’t met her yet, but I’m thinking about ways to include some college students. So they can come in and impact the high school kids as well.
NBL: You’ve been deeply involved in mentoring youth through coaching basketball. Tell me about that.
MD: I’m still coaching. When I coach and I do basketball stuff, I’m a mentor. [I coach at the Boys and Girls Club], and I do it on my own, on the side. You know, 60, 70 kids during the summer, obviously when there’s no elections, from like May or June all the way through to September, every weekend I’m out there with the kids. Again, it’s building their self esteem and [modeling] hard work and believing in them. I start [with kids] as young as 4 years old. Just to get them to have fun and love the game and listen to an adult and be around other kids is important. So I’ve still been doing that.
The rewards program [A’s B4 J’s] we haven’t done just because between my own [three] kids and elections and coaching, it’s a lot. So I’d love to bring that back at some point.
NBL: What will be the most important takeaway for teens from the NB Votes Youth Empowerment Program? A sense of agency?
MD: I think it’s knowing that adults value how they feel and what they think, and appreciate what they bring to the table. And to get them considering things like “Are you interested in government? Why or why not? How can we increase voter turnout?”
NBL: And then there’s their word of mouth to their peers.
MD: Exactly. Getting their friends wanting to vote and to be involved. They can spread the message much better than I can.
NBL: Does the response of children give you hope that democracy might flourish in the future?
MB: I think that kids are just a sponge, and they’re so open to learning and they’re not so dug in like most adults are. I think that there’s an opportunity for them to just come in and make a change in society and the way that we’re headed. I think the future is obviously in their hands, and we’re going to need them to step up. So again, just the enthusiasm and the energy they have when they do things is something we can learn from them as well. I’m hoping that they’ve got to save us from ourselves in the long run. I have a lot of faith in the youth and I have a lot of faith that they’re going to do the right things. But it’s up to us as adults to give them the right tools, to point them in the right direction. So hopefully we can at least continue to do that for them.
Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.