Mauzy Award Winner Ryan Pierannunzi Takes Democracy Reform from the Classroom to the Campaign Trail

Given everything that’s happened to American politics in the last few years, I just need to be able to say that I did my part and worked to help change the outcomes, says Pierannunzi

With clipboard often in hand, Ryan Pierannunzi MPP 2019 became something of a noodge around campus. A friendly noodge to be sure. Pierannunzi, who was honored by the Ash Center with the 2019 Martha H. Mauzy Award for the Advancement of Democratic Governance, was a lead student organizer of the Harvard Votes Challenge and worked through much of the 2018 fall semester to help register as many of his eligible HKS classmates to vote as he could. Pierannunzi and his fellow organizers, it turns out, were pretty successful at noodging, as over 90 percent of eligible HKS students ultimately participated in the challenge in the runup to the midterm elections.

“For me, voting and democracy issues have been my main policy interests and the reason I came to HKS,” said the Woonsocket, Rhode Island, native. “So many policy challenges we face today are in large part the result of structural flaws in our political system, and one of the most glaring flaws is how our government discourages meaningful civic participation.”

Pierannunzi was nominated for the Mauzy Award, which is presented annually to a graduating HKS student, by his classmates and chosen by the Ash Center for his demonstrated commitment while on campus to issues such as voter participation and electoral reform. “We couldn’t be more thrilled to honor Ryan, who over his two years at HKS demonstrated his passion and enthusiasm for issues around public participation in government, especially democracy issues, ” said Teresa Acuña, associate director for the Center's Democratic Governance program.

Democracy reform hasn't been just a mere academic or political interest for Pierannunzi, but is something that has underpinned much of his professional life. After graduating from Fordham University in New York City, where he served as the chapter president of the College Democrats, Pierannunzi went to work as a fellow with the US Public Interest Research Group, where he focused on policy issues such as state government fiscal transparency and the tax treatment of corporate legal settlements. As part of this fellowship, he helped lead a nonprofit canvassing office in Providence, Rhode Island. Pierannunzi got a real taste of the often grueling work of running a political field campaign, calling it “the most challenging job I’ve had thus far.” Running an office and training workers would serve as an invaluable experience when he came to HKS and helped spearhead many of the organizing drives around the Harvard Votes Challenge: “We treated it like a political field campaign with targeted outreach and disciplined messaging.”

Ryan on the HKS campus
Pierannunzi was a familiar and friendly face around the Kennedy School campus

Coincidentally, Pierannunzi arrived on campus in the fall of 2017 to start his MPP degree just as Miles Rapoport was moving into his new office as the Ash Center’s inaugural Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy. “It was really fortuitous that he and I both arrived here at the same time,” said Pierannunzi, who soon became a regular attendee of Rapoport’s democracy reform study group. “In many ways, Ryan is exactly who the study group was designed for. He took the opportunity to engage with democracy reform practitioners thoughtfully and energetically, and made connections with a number of key organizational leaders,” recalled Rapoport.

Building on a number of issues raised during the study group, Pierannunzi spent the summer between his first and second years at HKS working in the DC headquarters of Common Cause, a nonpartisan good-government advocacy organization where he conducted research to support a number of the watchdog group’s policy programs. He corresponded with congressional candidates across the country to increase participation in Common Cause’s “Our Democracy 2018” campaign, which collected and published candidates’ stances on democracy reform proposals, as well as conducted research for the organization’s “Democracy Scorecard” evaluating each Congressperson’s sponsorship of democracy-related bills.

Following his work with Common Cause, Pierannunzi spent much of his second year at HKS examining the impact of automatic voter registration (AVR) efforts as part of his MPP capstone project, or Policy Analysis Exercise (PAE), for Nonprofit VOTE, a voter-participation organization based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Automatic voter registration was pioneered in Oregon, where it was first implemented in 2016 and resulted in a significant boost to registration numbers. Given that it’s only been used in a handful of elections, there’s still a paucity of data illustrating how the reform impacts voting turnout. “Ryan’s report for Nonprofit VOTE places AVR in the context of other reforms and will be important baseline research for the more longitudinal studies to come,” said Rapoport, who helped advise Pierannunzi on his PAE.

With a freshly minted diploma in hand, Pierannunzi plans on building on his experience organizing and engaging on democracy reform issues, either continuing his work in the nonprofit and advocacy sector or joining the growing ranks of staff working for 2020 presidential hopefuls.

“Given everything that’s happened to American politics in the last few years, I just need to be able to say that I did my part and worked to help change the outcomes.” It shouldn’t be a surprise then, if you’re in an early primary state, to run into Pierannunzi with clipboard in hand, noodging voters. With a friendly smile, of course. 

Written by Dan Harsha, Associate Director for Communications and Public Affairs