Voting. For most Americans, it’s a straightforward exercise. A quick trip to a local school, library or fire station, casting a ballot and then getting on with the rest of the day.
But we know that many Americans, over the years, had to struggle to exercise what should be a clear-cut right — and that obstacles and threats continue to exist.
Voting rights figured prominently in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, given that rigged systems made it nearly impossible for Black Americans to register to vote in some parts of the country.
In 1965, on the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, my old friend and former Congressional colleague, the late Rep. John R. Lewis, nearly gave his life advocating for the right to vote.
Inspired yet again by John’s life and example, I plan to spend the coming weeks, months and years encouraging students at the University of Massachusetts — and beyond — to register to vote, to participate in the upcoming elections and to remain engaged with our precious but fragile American democracy.
We can and should attach John Lewis’s name to schools, parks and roadways across the nation — and certainly the bridge spanning the Alabama River in Selma should be named for the man rightfully known as the “conscience of the Congress” and not for a former KKK leader.
But it may be that John told us how we can best honor his name and life’s work.
In his extraordinary essay written shortly before his death and published in the New York Times on the day of his funeral, the late congressman told us what we must do to continue his work and to protect America and democracy.
“Voting and participating in the democratic process are key,” he wrote. “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”
“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
Why move forward with this unbiased, non-partisan effort? Some facts and figures:
- In 2014, only 19.7 percent of college and university students in the United States showed up to vote in a critical midterm election.
- Student turnout improved markedly in the 2016 presidential election, rising to 48.3 percent but still lagged behind the national turnout rate of 55 percent.
- Mirroring general electoral trends, student turnout slipped to 39.1 percent in 2018’s midterm election, all according to Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE).
Looking ahead, we at UMass are going to be following the IDHE’s recommendations to work with student and faculty leaders to maximize student participation in the electoral process, and will tell the story of sacrifices that John Lewis and many others made to ensure that voting will be a right and never again considered a “gift” to be bestowed or taken away.
We also are working with the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, a national organization that seeks to prepare students for a lifetime of civic and democratic engagement. I am proud to have joined with 160 U.S. college and university presidents working to achieve 100 percent student voter registration and turnout.
Clearly, a top priority in the weeks ahead will be determining the best way to accomplish our goals in the face of the ongoing pandemic.
Lest anyone say your vote doesn’t count, as someone who ran for office, I know that every vote is important. Our recent presidential elections alone illustrate that small margins make enormous differences:
- As a result of a 540-vote win in Florida in 2000, George W. Bush was elected president and Al Gore, the winner of the national popular vote, had to accept a bitter defeat in the Electoral College.
- In 2004, President Bush was reelected because he bested former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry by 118,000 votes in Ohio.
- Four years ago, 79,646 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin gave Donald Trump the Electoral College margin he needed to become president and defeat popular-vote winner Hillary Clinton.
Susan B. Anthony, who led the fight to extend voting rights to women, said: “Someone struggled for your right to vote. Use it.” President Obama observed: “There’s no such thing as a vote that doesn’t matter.”
My message to students is that voting is our obligation. It is the best way to be heard and to bring about change. Let’s make it our foundation for a better and more equitable future.