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Op-Ed: Help Tear Down A Huge Barrier To Democracy

CREDIT: Bus Federation.

Within the story of American democracy resides an epic struggle—great patriots fighting against old exclusionary systems continually powered by racism, to bring the power of the ballot box to all Americans and the underrepresented.

I want to ask you to join that fight, to help tear down a huge barrier to democracy – our antiquated voter registration system – over the long-run by modernizing voter registration, and this year by participating in National Voter Registration Day.

It feels safe to assume that anyone reading this blog has already eked out their own small spot in American democracy – engaged voter, activist, budding politico, wee Frank Underwannabe. We can easily forget how unfriendly our democracy can be to average people: strident, self-serious, and inconvenient.

With real human cost.

America’s Millennials feel the pain of our powerlessness.

Our unemployment is nearly 3 times the national average, and even higher for Millennials of color. Today’s average college graduate will be paying off her student loans for a quarter century or more.

How can today’s elected leaders let more than one-fourth of Americans be ravaged by economic hardship, without consequences?

Perhaps because elected leaders of yore built a wall to keep us from voting, that still stands to this day: voter self-registration.

The Antebellum system of requiring Americans citizens to proactively add themselves to the voter rolls excludes millions of young, diverse voters a year.

Though older eligible voter turnout eclipses youth voting by nearly 20 points, the gap between young and old registered voters shrinks to only 5 percent. Voter registration is the primary barrier keeping young voters from parity at the ballot box, and far greater power in America.

This is not new –politicians designed voter self-registration 200 years ago to exclude their least favorite voters. It began in the urban Northeast, then was adopted by Jim Crow Southern governments (at roughly the same time as the poll tax), then spread nationwide, excluding millions of voters every year. In the notably high-turnout 2008 election, 6 million Americans did not vote because they did not know how to register or missed the registration deadline.

Luckily, Americans can solve this problem – specifically you and me.

Over the next ten years, states can begin using the extraordinary amount of data they already collect about their citizens – through the DMV, colleges, and tax records – and register all eligible people in their states to vote. States could do this today, with current technology. It’s simply up to leaders to act.

But while we wait for elected leaders, we can chip away at this barrier by helping our peers register to vote. All you need is to grab a clipboard and some voter registration cards, walk around your campus, and ask people to register.

This not only upends the system that keeps millions of our peers from seizing their voice, but joins a storied history. Voter registration is forever bound to the struggle for justice in America. 50 years ago, Freedom Summer was the project of grabbing clipboards and registering voters in the Jim Crow South, a deeply inspiring mission for true democracy, which came at tremendous cost.

I’m not asking you to be so brave as the young Americans who took to Mississippi to register voters in 1964, but I do ask you to join their story.

On September 23, National Voter Registration Day, join me and thousands of people and groups across the country and host a voter registration

event on your campus. Spend one day putting power in other people’s hands. Though I hope you will register voters whenever you can, I

know you can take this one day and join thousands of other Americans doing this great work.

Place a voter registration card in somebody else’s hand, lend them a pen, and forever give them power.

Click here to sign up as a National Voter Registration Day partner (either with a campus organization, or just on your own), host an event, and join this great history.

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Breanna Champion is an organizer with Chicago Votes Education Fund.

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