For many of us who legally can’t participate in this year’s election, our inability to vote for our preferred candidate isn’t stopping us from engaging in the political process and building the long-term political infrastructure we need to elevate our voices.
Day to day, I run a national youth civic engagement program with a presence in 24 states, but unlike many of the organizers I work with, I won’t be able to cast a ballot on November 8th due to my immigration status.
That I won’t vote isn’t a consequence of my supposed apathy as a millennial, then, but instead the direct result of policies which block folks like me from casting a ballot. Aside from a small handful of civic engagement opportunities I’ve come across, organizations aren’t outreaching to me as a political operative; they aren’t seeing worth in my ability to mobilize my community within and outside of the voting booth — and that’s dangerous. Indeed, the fact that young people participate at low rates has much less to do with apathy than it does with a rigged system that makes it hard, and even impossible, for young people to vote – particularly young people of color. Condescending claims about disengagement are not only incorrect, they are plain disrespectful.
For one, many states have implemented new restrictions on young voters, emboldened by the Shelby Country v. Holder Supreme Court ruling that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, and allowed many states with histories of discriminatory voting practices to pass laws without approval of the federal government. The organizers I work with have encountered stringent voter ID laws. In North Carolina for instance, these restrictions have put significant barriers on out-of-state students. Folks who have registered more than 90 days before Election Day are required to have a North Carolina ID, which many out-of-state students do not possess. In other states, local board of elections attempt to disenfranchise students by claiming that dorms do not qualify as a legal residence, barring many from registering.
Others will be barred from the ballot box as a result of their immigration status. Undocumented folks, who arguably have some of the highest stakes in this election, will be kept from voting in the federal elections. There are currently as many as 5 million DREAMers – undocumented young people brought to the U.S by their parents as children – who will be unable to cast a ballot in November. What’s more, is that Permanent U.S Residents, meaning folks who have obtained legal resident status and in many cases are awaiting citizenship, will be also ineligible to vote.
While it’s convenient to blame young people for simply not wanting to engage, there is substantial evidence that we in fact are engaging and many of us who can are voting. Young people are involved in an overwhelming variety of civic engagement efforts. We are organizing in our communities and on our college campuses, and are involved in a multitude of social justice efforts that fall within and beyond the electoral process. Given the multitude of barriers placed in our way — from Voter ID bills to immigration laws, the act of vote is simply not a comprehensive marker of how much my peers and I care about politics and what we’re willing to do to build towards the socially just future we envision.
I work with young people organizing in states across this country with young organizers who’ve challenged themselves to think beyond traditional GOTV strategies and incorporate organizing tactics which push back on efforts to dilute and repress the vote. I see folks hosting voter education campaigns on the importance of voting; I see them working with their local sheriff’s department to register those held on pretrial detention and those incarcerated on misdemeanor offenses; and I see others working with different identity groups to explore their collective history of disenfranchisement. The point is that they are implementing innovative models for civic engagement, and are effecting trailblazing social change. Civic engagement extends far beyond voting, and the young people I work with certainly understand that.
To be sure, young folks with the ability and means to vote definitely need to, and the data shows that they understand that. Expanding our understanding of civic engagement isn’t to disparage voting, but rather to place it on a spectrum of actions one can take to achieve a more equitable, just society. By working together — across immigration statuses and levels of access, we can pry open the doors of American democracy to welcome new constituents, perspectives, and innovations. So instead of scolding and shaming us, it’s time we recognize the barriers that exist to keep us from voting and take meaningful steps to break them down.
In the meantime, I will continue to organize with young people across the country. We will implement creative solutions to roadblocks strategically placed in our way, and I will commit to mobilizing people to the polls, even if I can’t cast a ballot when we get there.