About a month before my friend Ohio Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones passed away last August, she spoke before a large student gathering and prophetically read the words of Bernice Johnson Regan: "The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on," she said, "is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm."
Her words stuck with me ever since; and in these unique times, one week away from a historic election, I can't help but think that young voters will in fact confirm the late Congresswoman's wisdom, voting in record numbers. Record turnout in this year's primaries and caucuses, as well as the steady increase in youth participation since 2000, suggests nothing less. Yet there are those who, after all these years, are still trying to pull the reins from us when it comes to our franchise.
"You don't understand the issues," they say, or "you don't have a family, own a home, and pay property taxes." Others state "you don't even live here for the full year," while some allege that we are simply trying to "dilute their votes."
I've heard all of these claims and many more during the past few months. But with the 2008 election less than one week way, it is likely these challenges will soon escalate--so let me make the case for students.
1. First and foremost, we are not second-class citizens: the laws and judiciaries protect our right to vote. A Supreme Court ruling in 1979, Symm v. U.S., affirmed that college students have an unequivocal right to participate where they attend school.
2. Students not only care about their college communities, but also give tremendous service to them: I know from my experience at Kenyon College in Gambier, OH that students leave an indelible mark on their communities. Whether through tutoring children; bringing local farm products into campus cafeterias; or cleaning area parks, roads, and forest preserves; college students invest heavily in their school environments.
3. Students benefit the local economy: college students create hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs for community residents, shop at neighborhood businesses, dine in area restaurants and bars, pay local sales tax, and bring in thousands of visitors each year. In addition, the Census Bureau includes students in their tabulations of local populations. We therefore bring in federal funding and additional statewide resources for community infrastructure projects.
4. Not all Americans live in fixed locations: many U.S. Citizens, especially young adults, are geographically mobile. Whether moving between cities for different jobs, transferring between academic institutions, or changing housing between semesters, we face particular challenges when it comes to claiming residency. When a student moves, however frequently, and then votes at a new address, it does not mean he or she is trying to circumvent the law or vote fraudulently, but rather trying to perform a civic duty.
It seems hypocritical that many of the same people that challenge our rights simultaneously benefit from our residency, while not fully embracing our right to participate in the communities to which we contribute so much. It is therefore critical we make exactly this point throughout the next week; and with the help of college and university professors and administrators, I too am confident that we can seize back the reins and tackle the complex issues of our generation.
Matthew Segal, 23, is the founder and executive director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE), a national non-profit organization founded and run by
students, with a mission to increase youth voter turnout by removing access barriers and promoting stronger civic education. Currently, SAVE has chapters on over 30 college campuses across the country.