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GUEST COLUMN: Students are key to a thriving democracy



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A student holds a computer displaying the Political and Civic Engagement website. Izzy Myszak

College students are in a powerful position to shape the future of our democracy.

The case for such optimism is not obvious on the surface. The COVID-19 pandemic has tragically disrupted the experiences of America’s youngest generations. Further, students bear the burden of carrying out their lives amid menacing forest fires, intensifying political conflicts and the devastating wounds of racial injustice.

However, we also have an opportunity to emerge from this crisis in a way that builds a more vibrant democracy. The Political and Civic Engagement program and the Big Ten Voting Challenge at IU are participating in National Voter Registration Day on Tuesday. On this occasion, we invite our campus community to reflect on the historic opportunity for young people to shape the character of our country. It begins at the ballot box.

Today, millennials and Generation Z eligible voters combined outnumber the baby boomers. This will be the first year since the 1990s that younger voters will be able to cast more votes than older generations, thereby luring lawmakers’ ears to their concerns.

Today’s youth are not just more numerous, they are more diverse. A recent census bureau report shows nearly half of Americans under 40 years old identify as a racial or ethnic minority.

“America is moving from a largely white, baby-boomer-dominated politics to a more racially diverse country fueled by younger generations,” said Will Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. 

When youth lead, the country moves with them.

In the 2008 presidential election, youth vote was higher than any point in more than three decades — a phenomenon that influenced the direction of the country for the following eight years. In 2016, the youth vote dropped to historic lows. However, here at IU-Bloomington, the percentage of college students casting a ballot tripled in 2018, compared to the previous 2014 midterm election.

If we want to build a more youthful, multi-racial democracy, we need to carry that momentum through the 2020 election. Even though we are practicing social distancing, it is easier than ever to stay connected virtually. Students have easy access to devices and new tools to register to vote online. If you haven’t done so yet, take a couple minutes to register at IU's TurboVote program. You can look up information about how to vote and more at PACE's website.

While our country is at a point of peak polarization, youth voices can foster a new spirit of social cohesion. Younger generations are eager to address issues such as climate change, affordable health care and racial justice. Leaders will listen when collective voices are amplified.

This election season, your voice is your vote, your vote makes a difference and that difference impacts policy making. Please join the movement to revive democracy and do your part to register, vote and support all students in getting to the polls. 

The future of our democracy is in your hands! #iuvotestogether

Lisa-Marie Napoli and Mark Fraley are the director and associate director, respectively, of the Political and Civic Engagement (PACE) program and are co-chairs of the Big Ten Voting Challenge.

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