As we move closer to Election Day 2014, I am once again reminded of how precious and vital the right to vote is to the nation’s founding ideals. Although our history includes systemic disenfranchisement of certain groups over time, we still remain the world’s best model and hope for a participatory democracy.
Democracy works best when people from all political persuasions and backgrounds participate. I can recall how political party-affiliated clubs and organizations during my high school years in the early 80s were just forming. During this era, there was only one such club at my school and its membership mirrored the affluence of the WASP culture that dominated the student body. Regardless of my personal feelings about exclusionism then, the presence of such groups at least said to me that there was a breeding ground for what voting behaviors were expected when one reached 18. Thankfully, my high school alma mater now has affinity groups of all types that better reflect the diversity of interests and ideologies of its students.
Such avenues for civic participation and civil discourse are magnified at the college level. The collegiate environment often allows students exposure to a larger context which can help spur new insights on if and how they engage in the political process. It seems that most candidates, particularly at the national level, intuitively know that this is a demographic worthy of their time and attention. It was brilliantly evidenced in President Obama’s 2008 campaign, which capitalized on the value of the young vote like none of his contemporary predecessors. The 18 to 30-year-old segment of the U.S. population has tremendous voting power numerically and will become increasingly influential in election outcomes despite there being more and more people living beyond the age of 80.
Rock AR Vote is an excellent example of a grass-roots effort to educate minority students on the importance of voting. Alexandria Washington, the visionary behind the campaign, works with student partners by visiting various Central Arkansas colleges to encourage their peers to vote. The organization’s goals help to drive the message that voting is the most important thing they can do for their country. As we soon celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many in today’s generation may be unaware of the fact that blacks’ legal access to the electoral process is a relatively new phenomenon. I would argue that the federal legislation prohibiting racial discrimination in voting is the crowning victory of the American Civil Rights Movement.
My simple message to those who may feel that their vote will not make a difference is that it won’t if it cannot be counted. The number zero is not multipliable, but one has exponential possibilities!
Dr. Michael R. Twyman
Director, UALR Institute on Race and Ethnicity