Erin McKelle is a student studying at Ohio University and one of RH Reality Check‘s youth voices.
Voting is one of our constitutional rights—right? But in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and more than half of the states in the nation introduced legislation to restrict voting access. People of color, women, and young people are disproportionately affected by these restrictions. At the same time, state legislatures continue attacking reproductive rights. Taken together, these attacks make voting that much more important for young people.
We are cycling into midterm elections, and this is no time for young people like me to stay home (or in the dorm). Deciding not to vote in an off-year or not bothering to get an absentee ballot has very real consequences—every vote does count. Young people ages 18 to 29 make up 21 percent of the eligible voting population, and when younger people participate in elections, it makes it more likely that others in their households will vote. Young people have the power to help decide elections
; they were critical to the reelection of President Obama in 2012.
In response, some politicians have crafted laws that are designed, in part, to depress the progressive youth vote. One example of this is a variety of voter identification
laws that now exist in 34 states, although some are not currently being enforced.
Although requirements vary from state to state, voter ID laws generally mean that you cannot vote without a driver’s license or other state-issued ID. You cannot use other types of photo IDs, even if they are verified in similar ways to a state ID, as college IDs can be. If you don’t have an approved form of ID, you may need to spend not only the time it takes to get one, but also upwards of $20. This seems like a poll tax, right? For instance, in Ohio, where I live, I am not allowed to use my student ID to vote, and it would cost me $8.50 to get an Ohio ID. Of course, it’s not just students who can face these issues: 11 percent of citizens of voting age lack proper photo ID.
Further, college students can face residency disputes. Although federal courts have ruled that students are allowed to vote using their address of residency at their universities, state and local laws can be more stringent. This intersects with voter ID laws, as a conflict of the address on your ID and of the residence you are using to vote could result in your being turned away from the polls. Prior to the 2008 elections, 11 of 50 states had been found to make voting on campus difficult for students. One is Virginia; college students at Virginia Tech faced voting difficulties because of the commonwealth’s failure to recognize students’ college addresses.
This is significant because the right to vote has not always been guaranteed for people of color, women, and young people—really anyone who isn’t a white male property owner. It wasn’t until 1869 that Black men were granted suffrage, and not until 1920 for women. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 tackled discrimination in voting at the local level, and before it was enacted many people of color, men and women, were prevented from exercising their right to vote. The voting age was 21 until it lowered to 18 in 1971. Surely all of these increases in voter eligibility have had an impact on elections. Seeing these rights being threatened once again is not something we should take lightly. These restrictions are designed to prevent people from voting.
Voting is a hard-fought right that should be used, and the consequences of not voting are dire in the realm of reproductive rights, especially for young people. Abortion and birth control restrictions are acutely felt by young people who often have fewer financial resources. Further, if you’re under 18, you have to get your parents’ permission to get an abortion in 21 states, which doesn’t even address the problems of cost and accessibility. If you have to take two or more days off of school and/or work to get through mandatory waiting periods, get to a clinic that may not be close to you, and pay for all of your medical treatments and incidentals, it’s going to be difficult. And the laws keep getting worse. Changing the tide on reproductive rights is going to require more voting for pro-choice politicians.
All of this probably makes
the political climate and our ability to change it seem discouraging, if not impossible. But, every vote does matter, and it counts more than ever because of how high the stakes are. Even if you live in a divided state like Ohio or a very red state like Texas, making your voice heard is critical to the protection of our liberties. Voter turnout rates in 2012 were very low—only 57 percent of the eligible population went to the polls. Think about how different our political landscape could be if the other 43 percent of voters had actually voted. Perhaps we could have put a higher federal minimum wage in place or secured immigration reform.
We do decide who’s going to represent us. A large amount of money is spent on expensive TV ads and the nature of the system is elitist, that doesn’t mean we have to buy into it. We can’t create change if we aren’t willing to put in the work to do it.
The fact is we have to start caring right now. Even though the midterms seem like they are a lifetime away, they are actually right around the corner and politicians have already started gearing up for them. Waiting until October to organize and back the politicians who are fighting for our rights is too late, as the two major candidates have already been chosen. As they say, the early bird gets the worm.
Making a conscious effort to vote is important because it has very real consequences for our lives. It affects access to health care, the distribution of wealth, the social and political climate of our country, and even civil rights. Not voting means that you aren’t getting a say in the people who are governing and representing us. It is making it easier for politicians who don’t represent our points of view to make decisions for us. If we ever want equal representation for women, racial minorities, and young people, we have to elect them into office. Social justice is not going to happen any sooner when the majority of our leaders remain old, white men.
So this year, make an effort to do your research. Find out what the laws in your state are before you head to the polls. If you know you’ll be out of town or swamped with work on election day, request an absentee ballot, carpool with friends to the polls, and talk to your friends and family about how important voting is. Remember how important it is to vote, and commit to being a part of creating change.