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VOICES

What I’ve Learned From Reporting On Voting Rights

Voters fill out their ballots in a gym on election day at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Albany, N.Y. New Yorkers will decided whether to send back Gov. Andrew Cuomo for a second term. If Cuomo wins he will be the first Democratic governor since his father, Mario Cuomo, to win re-election. Cuomo faces Republican Rob Astorino.

CREDIT: AP/Mark Groll.

I started covering voting rights when I was too young to cast a ballot myself, and deemed too young by my elder peers to care. Yet, for me, voting has always been considered a central pillar to the belief that my generation deserves a stake in shaping the issues that matter to us.

Still, as I researched and reported on voting rights on federal, state, and municipal levels, it soon grew to be something of greater personal importance. Almost immediately after taking on the role, I started embedding my reporting into my everyday life, asking my friends and other young people about their voting patterns and frustrations, as I hoped to find an answer as to why so many young people often fail to fulfill their civic duty.

The conversation would always start the same way.

I would ask, “Do you want to change anything about society?”

They would always respond “yes.”

I ask if they vote.

More frequently than not, they would, answer “no,” as they proceeded to mutter to me about how their vote doesn’t matter.

The author reporting on voting rights.

The author reporting on voting rights.

Why The Youth Vote Matters More Than Ever

For months, these conversations deeply troubled me. It’s clear, from these conversations and from even a cursory glimpse of the average teenager’s Facebook feed around the 2016 election, that young people care. They have opinions about politics and are civically engaged, even if they fail to recognize how much their voice truly matters.  But for every ounce of engagement, there’s an ounce of disillusionment–disillusionment that their vote doesn’t matter.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Not only does every vote matter, the youth vote is especially pivotal in determining the outcome of elections that have a direct impact on young people’s lives. Many local ballot measures, covering issues like education, the environment, and social issues, often have the most at stake for the younger generations. As I continued to explore this dynamic, I discovered many young people do not realize that there are more elements to elections than just voting for president or major positions of elected office. There are ballot measures and local races from district judges to city council members that are overlooked despite their direct influence.

In 2014, only 19.9 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds cast ballots in the mid-term election, and only 46.7 percent of young people were registered to vote. Both figures highlighted the lowest numbers seen in the past 40 years. And while voter turnout is historically higher during presidential election years, there is still an alarming disparity between the eligible number of young voters and those actually exercising their right to vote.

This means that if every person who failed to show up in the 2014 mid-term election and took the time to vote—officially registered or not—in the upcoming elections, not only would the candidates we elect change, but policies and values in which they push forward in legislation and representation would be dramatically different as well. As President Obama recently said in his remarks to college reporters on the importance of the youth vote: “Don’t let people tell you that what you do doesn’t matter.  It does. Don’t give away your power. That should be the main message that you deliver all the time.”

He continued: “And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican, Democratic, independent; whether you’re conservative on some issues, liberal on others.  If you participate and you take the time to be informed about the issues, and you actually turn out and your peers turn out, you change the country.”

Moreover, if young people channeled their energy and aspiration for change towards becoming active members of the electorate, they would be able to take their words to urge and influence action instead support a system of inaction and frustration. It does not matter what party you are affiliated with (in fact, Millennials are more likely to identify as independent than any other generation before) or what age you are: being civically involved is one of the most effective ways to take your thoughts and turn it into action, no matter the scale.

Breaking Down Barriers and Expanding Voter Accessibility 

As I explored why young people often failed to vote I was continually finding examples of the barriers preventing people from casting a ballot. Simply put, it is oftentimes just too complicated for people to register to vote. And I do not blame them.

As someone who recently registered to vote, I can attest to the difficulty of exercising my right. Even as a reporter covering this issue and as a citizen who has counted down the days until she turned 18 to cast her first ballot and immerses herself in the study of understanding voting rights on a regular basis, I still found the process difficult. I had trouble filling out the paperwork and found myself almost forgetting to send in my absentee ballot to make the deadline in time from college and as I quickly found in my formal and informal conversations on this topic; I was far from alone in this struggle.

Registering to vote should not be so complicated and it is my hope that the process becomes made easier and more accessible as soon as possible. Methods such as automatic voter registration (as I explored here) could help. But there are still ongoing obstructions being put in place that suppress and disenfranchise voters. We need to address these issues. Fifty years after the passing of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) discrimination is still prevalent in denying people the right to vote, formally or informally. So, while we still should be continually reminded of the strides we have made, the fight for equal representation and voting rights for all is still a fervent issue, as the VRA faces backlash across the nation. These barriers reminded me not only of the fight that continues across the nation, but the hard work that has brought me and so many others the right to vote was not always in place.

Yet, even when overcoming the hurdles of voter registration and becoming register, the list of excuses seemed to get longer and longer as I heard registered college students discuss why they failed to vote. From it being too much effort, not identifying or liking any of the candidates enough, not requesting an absentee ballot, or simply just not having a stamp to mail the ballot—the excuses were varied yet singularly unsupported in my eyes. These were the same students I heard raise their voices in my political science discussions and post on social media about their political frustrations. Yet, there is a profound disconnect it seems to some young people between wanting to see political change, and taking the time to act on these beliefs and cast a vote.

Which brings me to perhaps the most important lesson I have learned: voting is a universal human right, not a privilege. As young people, it is not only our obligation to exercise this right and make sure our voices are heard, but also to fight to make sure all citizens have access to the ballot. If I have learned anything from this past year asking the hard questions on voting rights it is that now more than ever, young people care. We are passionate and energized to take action. We deserve to be accounted for as a part of our decision-making electorate. The capacity for change is a ballot away. Now, let’s go out and vote.

Jazmin Kay is a reporter for Generation Progress, covering voting rights and civic engagement. Follow her on Twitter at @jazminlkay.

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