I didn’t truly appreciate having the right to vote until the middle of my college career. I had already participated in one election, but I felt like I was only voting because I knew I was supposed to. It wasn’t until a few years after the Barack Obama/Mitt Romney presidential contest of 2012 that it hit me: Having the ability to vote should be something to feel passionate about. Casting a vote for the candidate I want to lead our country should be .
It’s perhaps surprising it took me so long to realize this, given that I was surrounded by ardent political participation throughout my youth. I grew up hearing about (if not fully understanding) politics from my parents, television pundits, and news organizations. But I disregarded these conversations because I didn’t have a vote.
I don’t think my lack of engagement was totally my fault, though. After I turned 18 and was legally able to vote, I didn’t feel like my community — my college campus — created an exciting atmosphere around the election (aside from a few volunteers with clipboards incessantly asking if I’d registered). Even so, I did my civic duty in the last presidential election. I went through the motions and voted. That was it. No big deal.
I can’t say the same for my peers, although at first glance, it does seem like they are engaged in the democratic process. When I scroll through my Facebook feed, for example, I see that my friends are passionate about their opinions on the presidential election and the candidates they support. Based on these posts and conversations, one might conclude that voter turnout among college-age Americans would be high this year.
But looks can be deceiving. As an intern at School, a human-centric creative agency based in Boulder, Colorado, I learned that what young voters post on social media does not usually accurately reflect how they act — although their votes are crucial to the election. Young adults make up 21 percent of the voter population, but only 17 percent of adults age 18 to 24 cast a vote in the last election. The numbers are pretty egregious and staggering, actually. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2012, the Midwest enjoyed the most participation from voters between the ages of 18 to 24, at 41.9 percent. But other parts of the country had much less traction. The Northeast saw 38.3 percent of young voters exercise their right to participate in an election, which was the same number of those who voted out West. The South captured 35.4 percent of the 18 to 24 vote. It’s worth noting that the 65 to 74 demographic had the highest participation rates in all regions, at near or above 70 percent.
It’s a little bit ironic. We wait all those years to be considered full-fledged adults, to have the power and responsibilities associated with the moniker, but when the time comes, so many of us don’t take advantage of what that coming of age has to offer. I constantly hear other students say that they didn’t vote during the last election because they thought their single vote wouldn’t make a difference. I’ve heard plenty of others say that they think the two-party system is corrupt, but that voting for a third-party candidate is useless.
It’s frustrating to hear those who are supposed to be our nation’s bright youth disregard the voting process so blatantly. It feels like something crucial has been left out of our education. As college students, we have a unique opportunity to learn every day. Our main job right now is to learn as much as we can — inside and outside of the classroom, from professors, friends, peers, the news media, employers, and more. When we fail to vote, we’re not putting what we’ve learned is wrong with our country to use.
That has to change.
But let’s take a step back and give young people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe we are willing to put what we know to use. Maybe we just haven’t been taught the skills and information we need to do so and need more tools to function as informed voters. Universities play a major role in producing well-informed, skilled members of society, and educating young people about the importance of voting — of being good, educated citizens — should be part of that.
While we’ve been taking pop quizzes, midterms, and finals for four years at our universities, the inside of a voting booth is new territory for many of us. We’ll never even get the chance to step inside one if we’re not registered to vote, though, and voter registration on campus is embarrassing. Different programs have tried to help change the fact that college students are part of the lowest demographic in terms of voter turnout, including TurboVote, UVote, and Rock the Vote, which have all focused on registering youth voters around the country. I know we’re capable of campus-wide promotion. Every spring I see my campus covered in Greek recruitment propaganda, but I don’t see students getting anywhere near as excited about the election. Voting is the ultimate way for us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, but it garners nowhere near the same level of excitement.
Registering to vote is only one step of the process, though. Not everyone who is registered actually goes out to vote, which is where teaching becomes paramount, and where projects like School’s campaign on behalf of Civic Nation— “The All In Campus Democracy Challenge,” designed to educate students for lifelong civic engagements — come in.
College students simply need to visit the All In Campus Democracy Challenge website and make sure a campus administrator or faculty member registers their university. Once registered, the campus has to create an action plan that first and foremost gets students registered to vote, but also works to improve democratic engagement among voters so they become lifelong politically engaged and active citizens. Universities with the highest percentages of student voters will be rewarded, and more than 100 universities are already registered. Our hope is that maybe one day, graduating high school seniors will look at how schools rank in terms of student democratic participation when deciding where to apply.
I urge every student who doesn’t think their vote matters to ditch the apathy. There’s no time for it. Every demographic group has the same might college students do: one vote. One vote to make a difference and impact positive change. We’ve got to assume that the majority of people whose opinions make your skin crawl will be voting. Don’t you think you should too?
Make your voice heard at caucuses, at conventions, and, most important, at the polls. So many voices in our society remain unheard. Make sure yours doesn’t fall silent — in 2016 and beyond.
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This post originally appeared on MTV.com. Read the original here.