In 1972, the first election that 18-year olds could participate
in, 55 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 25 cast a
ballot. Not a staggering number, but nonetheless a majority, and a
hopeful place to start for a new generation of voters. Twenty-eight
years later, in the fall of 2000, only 42 percent of that same
demographic chose to vote, a slide of 13 percent, or a solid eighth
of the population. What happened? Well, one story that I have heard
all of my life is that my generation is one of apathy and laziness,
one bred of the leisure of economic stability and the flashy, vapid
imagery of MTV. And we are, by and large, slower to respond to, and
quicker to disengage from the political process than any group
preceding us; we are the greatest electoral slackers in our
nation’s history.

That is, until now.

In the state of Michigan, more than 100,000 young people have
registered to vote for the election on Nov. 2, 10,038 of those
coming from the Voice Your Vote Commission on campus. Nationwide,
the numbers have seen equivalent jumps and turned many an elder
voter’s head. As the monikers “soccer moms” and
“NASCAR dads” are thrown around as target voting blocs,
the youth vote is quickly becoming recognized as one of the most
pivotal for whomever is going to carry this election.

Fueled by the grassroots efforts of thousands of passionate and
concerned students across the country, the culture of voting has
begun to pick up momentum in unexpected places as well. With
everyone from Dave Matthews to Sean Combs lending their popularity
sway to an effort already including people such as Russell Simmons
and others, voting has become cool. Urban Outfitters, the
pre-eminent gauge of the chic and trendy, put out a shirt in the
summer that said “voting is for old people.” The public
outrage was so immediate and incensed, and more importantly, coming
directly from students, its target market, that the shirt dropped
from the shelves immediately. The claims of apathy from election
cycles past have lost their public appeal, and now it is the voters
who are “cool.”

As responsive as entertainers have been to the new notions of
democracy, public officials writ large have not shared the same
enthusiasm. Michigan, like nearly every other state across the
country, harbors laws that are specifically designed to keep young
people from voting. Worse than the laws, however, have been the
actions of public officials across the state and the country. At
Alma College, the city clerk would not allow students to register
to vote, in blatant violation of state law. In Ann Arbor, East
Lansing and the student-heavy areas of Detroit, Secretary of State
Terri Lynn Land put up posters weeks before the Oct. 4 registration
deadline that read: “Registering today? Remember, you
can’t vote on Nov. 2.” When asked about it later, the
incident was called a “mistake.” In Ohio, the secretary
of state decided a week before the deadline that registrations that
had not been submitted on a certain weight of paper would not be
valid, potentially disenfranchising thousands of voters. In
Florida, changing guidelines for registration applications have
pushed thousands off of the rolls and have provided no mechanism to
contact folks who simply missed a check box on the form.

These actions, along with many others, have fueled a maelstrom
of misconception and misinformation that has left many students
unduly concerned about their status, with still more students left
in the dark about their rights. Why do these things take place? Why
is it that people who are elected and appointed to make the voting
process as fair and as accurate as possible are going out of their
way to put down the student vote? Where has this visceral reaction
come from, and how is it so widespread? It is because young people
pose a threat. The potential power in a student voting bloc is
monumental, not only in its scope — 18- to 25-year olds make
up 20 million people in this country — but in its attitude.
Our generation is the least likely to declare allegiance to a
political party in this country’s history. We are the least
likely to hold the same political ideals as our parents in decades.
We are the most technologically savvy, the most interconnected, the
most tolerant of difference and most passionate about diverse
viewpoints. We are ready to lead, and have the compassion and
talents to do so.

For too long, we have been pushed toward materialism and away
from engagement. We have been dictated a curriculum in our schools
that teaches us not to challenge and not to question. We have been
pushed towards a version of success that views us as pawns, not
partners. We have been dealt candidates who do not speak to our
issues, yet fully intend on speaking for us when the time comes. We
have seen war and poverty and pain and beauty and opportunity and
gain, and we have not been asked about any of it. Young Americans
are ready to make change in their communities and their country;
they just have been told for too long that they cannot. I, along
with the 10,038 new voters that Voice Your Vote welcomed into the
process this year, and millions more across the country, am a
little tired of being told what I can and can’t influence.
And come Nov. 2, we will be doing the telling.

 

Woiwode is an LSA senior and co-chair of the Voice Your Vote
Commission.

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