Right before the 2018 election, my university invited an elected official to speak about the importance of voting. In an accusatory tone, she reprimanded us for being the lowest-voting demographic. She berated us for being lazy, uninformed, and entitled.
What she failed to understand is that we are not at fault for being the lowest-voting demographic, and guilting us into voting isn’t going to make us want to do it any more.
While she was speaking, I looked at the students around me, the students that she was reprimanding, and I noticed two things. First, these students are registered to vote. (Voter registration volunteers spoke to everyone who came and only got 30 registrations —clearly, this is a civically engaged crowd.)
Second, these students, my peers, are some of the most dedicated people I’ve ever met. The things they’ve done on my campus, in our community, and throughout the state have been monumental. Here is an elected official chastising the same people who she believes, in her words, are our future.
Here’s where our elected officials get it all wrong: You have not given us the tools to be voters. You have failed to prepare us and prepared us to fail. You have taught us that this system was not built to serve us; it was not built for us to participate in. The median age of a state legislator in Washington is 53. How can you expect us to participate in a system that has no intention of representing us? Even before taking into account our various other marginalized identities, the people who represent us don’t look like us.
Additionally, where are the resources for our civic education? If these elected officials are so intent on having us vote and “be the future,” they should be advocating for these resources. Instead, they guilt trip us, they yell at us, or they try to entice us with a “game” or ”challenge.” In this case, it was all three: We were registering students for the Governor’s Voter Registration challenge.
Voter registration is not enough. My whole life, I’ve lived 3.5 miles from the Capitol — but I did not step inside until I was a senior in high school. An elected official had never visited any of my classes, even though they worked down the street from my school.
We cannot stop at voter registration; it is not a meaningful connection. You can register as many youth as you want to vote, but how will you increase their sense of political efficacy? How will you show them why it matters? And do we want their civic engagement to end with casting a ballot?
Voting is not the most important thing we can do. And clearly, it is not enough to create lasting, meaningful political change.
When one candidate can win the popular vote but not be elected president, voting is not enough.
When we still have systematic oppression from gerrymandering and redlining, voting is not enough.
When there are people, including children, being killed at the border (which has always happened, no matter who we elect, and it will continue to happen, because it’s ingrained in the system), voting is not enough.
Teach youth that protest is effective political engagement. (We love that stuff.) Teach us how to talk to our elected officials and how to draft legislation. Teach us how to believe in ourselves and our power, how to disentangle our political worth from our voting potential.
And then register us to vote.
Despite the frustration I experienced at that election event this fall, I want to thank that elected official for speaking to us. She reminded me how important it is to vote, so we don’t elect politicians like her.