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Protests matter, but only turnout can save American democracy

Protests matter, but only turnout can save American democracy
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In the Trump era, youth activism is running high.

Thousands of female activists — many of them young Americans — recently joined a national walkout to protest Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Thousands more protested the Trump administration’s family separation policy earlier this summer, and nearly one million students walked out of classrooms this past March to protest gun violence.

That’s the good news. Now the bad news. For all of the energy that young Americans expend marching and protesting, they often fail to muster the energy for the most essential form of political activism: Voting.

Young voters — namely those aged 18 to 29 — comprise a notoriously unengaged segment of the electorate. Nearly six million registered voters in that age group chose not to vote in 2016. Even more (at least 10.7 million young Americans) were not even registered to vote in our last presidential election.

Youth turnout for the 2014 midterm elections was even worse, as more than 12 million registered young voters stayed home. That comes out to over three-quarters of the youth age group failing to participate in our democracy.

By sitting on the sidelines, young Americans are allowing their elders to make the decisions that will impact their future. If you asked average 18-year-olds if they would allow someone 50 years their senior to make decisions about their everyday lives, they would scoff at the notion. Yet, when it comes to hot-button issues such as government debt and climate change, they effectively do just that.

Looking ahead, the jury is still out on the 2018 midterms. According to recent polling, only 28 percent of registered voters aged 18 to 29 will “certainly” vote in November. As the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman explains, “They are the likeliest voters to drop out of the electorate.”

Fortunately, numerous states are trending in the right direction. In Pennsylvania — where young voters account for nearly two-thirds of new voter registrations — there are now more registered voters aged 18 to 34 than 65 and older. Other battleground states like Florida and Virginia have also seen drastic increases in the number of registered young voters.

Much of this progress can be traced to the many political organizations that recognize the need to engage young voters in our democracy. The ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge is honoring colleges and universities that commit to increasing student turnout and promoting civic engagement on campus. Rock the Vote is coordinating voter registration drives on campus, while MitzVote hopes to mobilize Jewish students nationwide.

However, voter registration is not enough. We need young Americans to vote — not just once, but always. That’s why Every Vote Counts — a student-led, nonpartisan organization of which we’re proud to be a part — is dedicated to (channeling the energy that young Americans expend marching and protesting to boosting  turnout on Election Day around the country.

This week, we’re lighting a fire under our peers by launching the National Pledge to Vote. We’re kicking off the pledge with events at 23 participating campuses nationwide, and with more to come. Yale University is challenging Harvard University to see which campus can deliver higher voter turnout. Basketball teams are challenging football teams to see who can get the most players to vote. Young Americans are also partnering with local community organizations to engage non-voters like never before. 

Now is the time to reverse the voter apathy that has plagued our elections for decades. Now is the time to take initiative and change the norms of voter participation for decades to come. Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, it’s time to have your voice heard.

We’ve marched, and we’ve protested. In November, it’s time to vote.

Campbell Streator serves as program director at Every Vote Counts, a student-led, nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout and expanding voter access. Harold Ekeh is the president of Every Vote Counts' Yale University chapter.