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State Of The (Millennial) Union: Voting Rights And Civic Engagement

By Jazmin Kay

In President Obama’s final State of the Union address, the President not only reflected back on his record since 2009, but also outlined his vision for the future. Obama discussed issues ranging from the economy, climate change, and foreign policy finally before concluding with the question: “How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?”

In his discussion of the final issues of the night, Obama recognized the cynicism and frustration around the nation in regards to creating change and civic engagement: “It’s a lot easier to be cynical; to accept that change is not possible, and politics is hopeless, and the problem is all the folks who are elected don’t care, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter.”

Facing historically low voter turnout as America approaches another election year, Obama’s commentary highlights the need to make politics and voting feel inclusive and allow for fair and representative elections. This frustration is particularly pertinent to the nation’s youth, as many have noted the strong wave of cynicism and disconnect towards politics among Millennial voters.

The President also alluded to the Supreme Court’s controversial decision in the 2010 case Citizens United v. FEC and campaign finance reform, criticizing “those with money and power” and their significant influence over the political process.  He condemned the practice of “drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters,” an issue of one-person, one-vote that has gained recent national attention as the Supreme Court took on Evenwel v. Abbott and discussion of non-partisan re-districting policies build momentum.

Additionally, as 2015 wrapped up a reflective year for the Obama administration as the Voting Rights Act celebrated its 50th year, the President continued to push for increased access to the ballot, vowing to travel across the nation to advocate for modernization and increased accessibility among voting procedures.

“We’ve got to make it easier to vote, not harder. We need to modernize it for the way we live now,” the President said Tuesday. “This is America:  We want to make it easier for people to participate.  And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do just that.”

While the President was quick to mention the many inequalities and issues blocking civic participation, he was equally optimistic for the future, pushing for citizen involvement in public life and leading from the perspective of for a politics of “hope” similar to his initial campaign messaging over seven years prior.

Overall, the President’s last State of the Union address re-enforced not only the need for each citizen to act upon and ensure their right to vote as one of their most sacred duties as a citizen, but also helped in reminding some of the nation’s most disenfranchised groups, including young people, that their voices matter. As Obama concluded in his ending powerful imagery of diverse citizens around the nation attending the voting booth to execute their “precious right” the President reminded the nation the that “every vote should count.”

Obama’s final State of the Union comments should not only assist shaping his legacy for pushing for a brighter future for voting rights and civic engagement, but also help in fostering the timely realization that politics is not just for the people, but it should be by them as well. As we approach the 2016 election, it is time young people respond to this call-to-action and step up to claim their spot at the table.