Your Vote Counts

On Study Card Day in mid-September, all 1,669 freshmen were required to turn in their study cards to University Hall. In eight hours, students from the Institute of Politics assisted nearly 700 of their peers with voter registration and absentee ballot requests, and we got an opportunity to speak with many of them about why they were voting. We heard things like:

“My country and community are important to me!”

“I love America.”

“I care about the future of the U.S.”

Music to our ears! Yet for every enthusiastic new voter, there was an equally hesitant and confused young person looking for assistance. Some weren’t sure if they had already registered, or where they had registered; others didn’t know how to go about requesting an absentee ballot. Fortunately, these questions are easy to address. The questions that were more difficult to answer were: Where should I register—in my home state, or here in my college state? Will my vote make a difference?

Regardless of where or why students want to register to vote, new technologies are making participation in our political process simple. The IOP has partnered with “TurboVote”—an innovative company offering online voter registration technology and an easy pathway for students to navigate voting paperwork and procedures, especially those looking to vote in their home state by absentee ballot. Registering online is easy—students fill out the required forms online, wait for completed documents to arrive in the mail for signature then return them in provided pre-stamped, pre-addressed envelopes. There are no excuses! The logistical hurdles are easily surmountable.

Even as the registration process becomes more simplified, however, students won’t participate unless they want to. The Institute has been conducting public opinion polling of young adults tracking their interest in and views on politics and public service for 12 years with 21 national polls. Since the IOP’s first poll conducted in April of 2000, a significant re-engagement of young adults in the political process has occurred. According to CNN exit polling, more votes were cast in the last presidential election by people under the age of thirty (18-29 year-olds, commonly referred to as “Millennials”) than those aged 65 years or older. Although seniors are traditionally thought of as one of the most reliable voting populations, it was America’s Millennial generation—the largest generation in U.S. history—who showed up at the ballot box in greater numbers in 2008. The power young people have in elections today is immense, as is their responsibility to impact our country’s future.

IOP students knowledgeably tried to address every question posed during the voter registration event, but had more trouble with a comment we heard from several students who said they did not feel “informed enough” to vote. How could we most concisely convey the importance of America’s young adults taking the time to care about politics and vote? Should we have challenged Harvard freshmen to help further dispel the myth that young people are apathetic, despite the fact that the youth vote has been significantly rising since 2004, and more than doubled during the 2008 primaries? Should we stress how the presidential election can decide the direction of the country and our communities for the next four years? Or emphasize how critical the 2012 elections are to our nation’s future, especially to students and Millennials who will become tomorrow’s leaders?

We believe that it may be most effective to encourage young people to listen to their fellow freshmen who enthusiastically responded when asked why they are voting:

“My country and community is important to me!”

“I love America.”

“I care about the future of the U.S.”

Listen to your classmates! Inform yourself through meaningful dialogue about the election and issues you care about. Pay attention to the candidates and what they believe in and stand for. Take the time to ask your fellow students to do the same. Elections are too important to sit out.

Evelynn M. Hammonds is the Dean of Harvard College and the Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies; Trey Grayson ’94 is a two-term Secretary of State from Kentucky and the Director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

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