07/21/2014 10:47 am ET Updated Sep 20, 2014

Young Leaders on the Front Lines to Defend Voter Rights

This month courageous students and a handful of civil rights organizations are challenging a voter ID law in North Carolina -- saying it discriminates against college students in the state and violates the 26th Amendment allowing 18-year-olds the right to vote. Over the past few years, we have seen a proliferation of laws aimed at disenfranchising people of color, the elderly, people with special needs, low-income communities, women, and youth. Rather than encouraging democratic participation, certain state legislatures across the country have made it more challenging to exercise a fundamental American right and civic duty: the right to vote. If these young people win this case, it will be a landmark victory and another indication that youth are politically engaged in our country and making meaningful contributions to our democracy. As executive director of youth leadership programs at People For the American Way Foundation, I have always believed this, and am reminded of it daily.

Ten years ago, People For the American Way Foundation founded our Young People For (YP4) program, with the belief that young people are a critical and valuable part of our democracy. The program provides leadership training and mentorship for young activists and makes a lasting investment in progressive leaders. Shortly after, we founded the Young Elected Officials (YEO) Network to develop and support young progressives in elected office. As a young elected myself, I was frustrated by the lack of investment in young political leaders. Today, these programs have trained and connected thousands of leaders from all corners of the country and built an enduring pipeline of young progressives who are challenging the status quo and making a profound difference in their communities.

We celebrate our young leaders like Lela Ali, a member of YP4 and NC Vote Defenders, a grassroots movement of students from all across North Carolina working to protect every citizen's right to cast a ballot. She works with the group to educate the community on how and when voting laws are changing, to train students and others to be poll monitors at key precincts, and to document any incidents that occur during voting. Ali explains, "The right to vote embodies the spirit of American democracy." Ali does this work in spite of the fact that she is not a U.S. citizen and is unable to vote herself. Events in her home country of Egypt have inspired her to work to protect this "right and privilege [that] no citizen should be deprived of."

And we celebrate young leaders like YEO member Montravias King, whose right to be on the ballot was challenged when he ran for elected office as an Elizabeth City State University student in North Carolina -- despite the fact that he'd been voting in the county for four years with his campus address. The bid to challenge his residency failed, and he won the most votes in a crowded field of seven. He now sits on the Elizabeth City Council as the state's youngest elected official and continues his activism for voting rights. "My generation," he believes, "has realized the power that we have at the ballot box."

Young people are volunteering at historic rates, voting in powerful blocs, and running for public office in growing numbers. I see young people as a great source of hope, unafraid to overcome the obstacles we face. If our democratic rights are threatened, we will bring a challenge in a court of law. If a voting line is long, we'll wait. If legislators try to stop us from voting, we'll redouble our efforts. We will make sure our votes are counted and our voices are heard.