The year was 1971 and the United States had been at war in Vietnam for the duration of the past decade. The draft was in full effect and able-bodied young men over the age of 18 were enlisted into the U.S. military to serve in the war effort. Overseas, our soldiers, sailors and Marines were fighting a drawn-out counterinsurgent war against guerrilla fighters in the jungles of Vietnam.
Meanwhile, our youths were fighting another battle back at the homefront. Our students in the states were fighting against injustice. These students rose up in the streets to protest against the fact that at 18 years old, they could be drafted against their will to serve in the war effort, yet they had no voice whatsoever with which to influence the very policies and politicians that served to engender the need for drafting them in the first place. They did not believe that being old enough to die in service to your country was also being too young to vote in its elections.
On July 1, 1971, the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted into law. The Amendment ensured that no state in the union was allowed to deny anyone over the age of 18 the right to vote. In the 42 years since its adoption, America’s youth has largely squandered this gift. Consistently, in nearly every election since 1976, less than 30 percent of eligible voters under the age of 30 have voted in any given election. The demographic of voters between 18 and 24 years old consistently represents the lowest demographic, in terms of turnout, in every election.
This low voter turnout among young voters, my peers, has drastic consequences. The biggest consequence is that we are underrepresented in local, regional and national politics. The interests and concerns of the young voter are dismissed as inconsequential in the halls of power in Washington D.C. and at home in the New York State Assembly at Albany.
I do not mean to sound cynical, but the reason for this dismissal is very obvious: We do not vote. Our concerns do not matter to politicians, because politicians do not depend on us to keep them elected.
When politicians speak of policies or laws that are untouchable, they refer to Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. This is because the elderly are the highest among voter turnout. Any elected official who crosses them does not remain in office for very long. So politicians give the concerns of that demographic a weight and consideration that is not extended to the concerns of our age demographic.
Over this past summer, Congress voted to double the interest rates on federal student loans from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. Politicians callously decided to lessen the federal deficit on the backs of our best and brightest young citizens. Thanks to the intervention of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and President Barack Obama, a last-minute bipartisan agreement was reached to lower the new interest rate to 3.9 percent. That is still a higher rate than what we started at when the summer began. This kind of thing would not happen if young voters voted en masse. If we were to get out there and make our voices heard, then we would not be singled out by legislation like this.
I know it is very cliché to say this, but voting is important. Voting is powerful. Voting is the great equalizer. Every citizen gets one vote and one vote only, regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, occupation or socioeconomic status. It is high time that students start to actively participate in the politics that affect their lives, wallets and freedoms. Forty-two years ago, college students fought for the privilege of filing a ballot, yet nowadays students cannot be bothered to wait in line for an opportunity to make their opinions known. Stony Brook University, we need to reignite the passion in our student body. The youth voter needs to be heard. We need a say in our government. The American people need your vote.