Our democracy—pass it on

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Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once exhorted, “This is [our] democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”

Now, 51 years after his U.S. Supreme Court confirmation, his advice is as pertinent as ever. 

{mosads}According to the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, fewer than half of college students voted in the 2016 presidential election. The Institute also found that a mere 18 percent of college students voted in the 2014 midterm election.

This turnout is dismal. 

In the run-up to each election, we attempt to galvanize young people to vote by trying to persuade them into action “just this one time”—and for mere minutes—when they briefly step into the voting booth to cast their ballot. What we miss is the real opportunity to transform them into lifelong voters, citizens who view voting as a sacred responsibility. We fail to communicate to them that voting is a critical dimension of living in a democracy, and we fail to claim civic engagement as a core component of our mission as educators.   

We must do more than facilitate voter registration. We must teach students the value of their vote—and, for that matter, the fragility of voting rights. 

In 1964, 24-year-old John Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and now the representative for Georgia’s 5th District, led SNCC’s efforts to address the disenfranchisement of African-American voters across the southern United States. He inspired college students from across the country to travel to Mississippi to register black voters, and he was one of the leaders of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches in support of voting rights.   

But the problem of voter disenfranchisement (or suppression) did not end with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

From Pennsylvania, to North Dakota, to Georgia and beyond, we see that disenfranchisement persists and disproportionately affects black, brown and indigenous people. 

Depending upon where they reside, college and university students are also among those groups whose access to the franchise is under threat due to misinformation about their eligibility to vote, about the location of their polling places, and about the process of securing absentee ballots. 

We in higher education must push against these troubling trends, just as we have long sought to preserve the American Dream. Starting with the G.I. Bill, and especially within the past decade or so, higher education has embraced the power and responsibility of our institutions to serve as agents of social mobility. We have placed a heightened emphasis on recruiting students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college and come from historically underrepresented geographic regions and ethnic backgrounds.

Our goal has been the noble one of transforming the lives of students from all backgrounds by providing them access to the resources of our institutions and preparing them to live as engaged members of our democracy. For students who are eligible to vote, protecting their rights is paramount.

Climate change, gun violence, reproductive rights, prison reform, LGBTQ rights, health care, immigration and race are issues of great importance to young people and are urgent topics in this election cycle. Like the rest of us, they ignore this election at their peril.

Wherever students stand on these issues, they must inform and organize themselves to register and to vote. 

We must encourage students to go beyond the edges of our own campuses and cultivate a relationship with the broader world. We must also encourage them to participate actively in the communities in which they live and to which they belong–to be curious about their neighbors; to educate themselves about international, national and local issues; to volunteer to work for candidates and issues they support; and to collaborate with others to address the problems and concerns we face.

Let us gather students and others in classrooms, dining halls, or wherever they congregate to begin, or continue, those conversations on the lifelong commitment to the democratic process. If we can engage students not only on Election Day, but in ongoing conversations and participatory exercises, we will better serve our democracy and ensure that we continue to “pass it on.”

Valerie Smith is a distinguished scholar of African-American literature and is the 15th president of Swarthmore College.

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