Marches. TV spots. Strongly-worded letters. Washingtonians have never been shy about making our voices heard when it comes to big decisions for our state. An engaged and opinionated citizenry are key ingredients of a strong democracy. But these elements would be nowhere without our most fundamental right: our freedom to vote. Sept. 25, was National Voter Registration Day; eligible Americans everywhere got registered for the first time, updated an existing registration, and helped their friends, families, and communities get involved for a stronger, more representative democracy for all. Missed it? It’s not too late.
Last legislative session, Washington proved its commitment to real democracy by passing a historic suite of voting rights policies: Automatic Voter Registration, Same-Day Registration, Pre-Registration for 16- and 17-year-olds (which was so exciting for the students I work with), and the Washington Voting Rights Act. Next, we’re going to make sure every mail-in ballot has paid postage. These groundbreaking innovations make our voting system less complicated, more secure, and increase accessibility for every eligible voter. It’s a reality many other states only dream of.
But despite our progress, there are still around 1 million eligible, unregistered Washingtonians who aren’t making their voices heard. The number is made up of lots of different people – folks who move frequently, busy working families, rural voters, and new citizens who are just navigating our voting system for the first time. With so many voices missing from the conversation, we can’t achieve the vibrant, truly representative democracy we need for Washington to remain a national leader for progress.
As executive director of the Washington Student Association, I’m acutely aware of the challenges young people face participating in democracy. We’re under-engaged in politics, told that we don’t know what we’re talking about, or that we don’t have skin in the game. We move frequently, juggle school, work and social commitments, and are busy figuring out our new adult lives. I also know what the stakes are for our generation – and the power of our voices. The price of higher education is more and more out of reach for working and middle-income students. Climate change threatens our health, safety and the home we love. Income inequality is at an all-time high, making it harder for young people to realize rewarding, meaningful careers. For these reasons and so many more, we must harness the power of our voices by exercising our freedom to vote. Because only when we raise our voices can we can make sure our priorities are shared by our leaders.
Registering to vote is the first step to join a greater movement of young people fighting for change. I’ve seen this ladder of engagement in real time through our partnership with Western Washington University where, for example, the Washington Student Association has registered over 3,000 new voters yearly. Many of the students who registered have become organizers for important campaigns, or traveled to Olympia to lobby for causes close to their hearts and communities. And while same-day and automatic voter registration won’t be implemented until 2019, our current registration system is still pretty simple to use: visit the Secretary of State’s website (https://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/register.aspx) to register online or through mail before Oct. 8. You can register in person at your County Elections Department until Oct. 29. And don’t forget to update your registration every time you move!
No matter who you are or where you’re from, November’s primary will be a consequential one. With key seats open or up for re-election, it’s time to make your voice heard. But you can’t do that without registering to vote or updating an existing registration. National Voter Registration Day may have passed, but it’s not too late! I call on young people especially to act this week by registering to vote, updating their registrations, and getting their eligible friends registered. We hold unique and critical perspectives that only we can stand up for – and when we participate, we step into the power that shapes our future. Join me this month, to take that first step into a lifetime of improving our communities and our state.
Guillermo Rogel is executive director of the Washington Student Association.
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