Young People are the Ballast for Protecting our Democracy

This op-ed was published by The Hill on June 12, 2018. 

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The United States seems to be teetering dangerously toward authoritarianism. Although the U.S. Constitution ensures equality and liberty, recent political actions at the highest levels of government serve to diminish our institutions and our democracy. Among the threats to our constitutional freedoms are voting rights violations, the politicization of the U.S. Census and laws that would restrict student protests.

On May 11, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order establishing the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. As its vice chair, the president named Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a proponent of the unfounded idea that voter fraud runs rampant in the nation. Far from protecting electoral integrity, the commission threatened to disenfranchise legitimate voters, particularly African Americans, Latinos and members of other racial minorities. In January, President Trump disbanded the commission.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013, which essentially dismantled the Voting Rights Act, has paved the way for new instances of voter suppression. Following the decision, states and localities with a history of race-based electoral discrimination no longer must obtain federal clearance before implementing changes to their voting laws or practices. Some states interpreted this as an invitation to pass restrictive voter ID laws that previously had been blocked as racially discriminatory under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Likewise, the proposed question of citizenship on the U.S. Census may lead to decreased representation in areas of the country with a high density of immigrants. Although law prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing census responses with law enforcement or immigration agencies, the proposed addition threatens to deter undocumented immigrants from completing the census. Since the Constitution dictates that the total population, including non-citizens, determines a state’s number of seats in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College, lack of immigrant participation would lead to underrepresentation in Congress.

Not only will undocumented immigrants fear compliance, but the change also risks undercounting citizens who live in mixed-status households.

The secretary of state of Florida has taken the novel and unconstitutional approach to prohibit early-voting stations at any educational institution. Over 68 percent of Floridians vote early or with absentee ballots and this prohibition could disproportionately suppress the youth vote. College campuses are dense communities where most students are geographically bound without cars. Finding and reaching an off-site early-voting station is unduly burdensome and not equal in treatment to stations that are permitted in rural areas. The Andrew Goodman Foundation and several students at the University of Florida are suing to compel the state to make early-voting sites available on educational campuses.

Despite these threats to democracy, we remain hopeful at The Andrew Goodman Foundation that young people will continue to step up, into the role of ensuring that a fair and democratic nation prevails. Young people on college campuses nationwide are standing up to protect their rights and the rights of others, and universities are encouraging their participation in the voting booth.

Young Americans now make up the largest voting bloc in the nation. And even some who aren’t old enough to vote are leading the way, organizing people to take to the streets demanding change on issues such as gun control. Their rallying cry is “Vote them out!” In the face of recent national events, young people also have stood up for immigrant rights in response to the administration’s move to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

As students inspire each other to work toward change on a local and national level, they demonstrate their power to unify others and protect the nation’s greatest freedoms.

This movement by young people strikes fear in the autocracy sympathizers, causing legislators in 17 states to introduce bills to deter protests. These proposed bills include an array of attacks on freedom of assembly, such as criminal penalties for trespassing during a protest, wearing a mask during a protest, and more. So-called “hit and kill” bills are among the most shocking bills introduced — they would shield motorists who strike protesters. North Dakota, Florida and Tennessee introduced but failed to pass such a bill; in North Carolina, the “hit and kill” bill passed the House and remains in Senate committee. Young people are fighting back to protect the right to protest.

The approaching midterm elections will test the work of young people to bolster our democracy. If the activism spawned by school shootings in Parkland, Florida, and elsewhere fulfills its promise, we may witness a wave of new representatives to replace entrenched incumbents. At The Andrew Goodman Foundation, our hopes are high that young people will continue to push for change, exercise their right to protest and vote this fall.

The Constitution grants the power to have our voices and votes become a strong force for democracy, and utilizing that power could make all the difference.

About the Author

Maxim Thorne is the Managing Director of The Andrew Goodman Foundation. Formerly, Maxim was the Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer of the NAACP, the Chief Operating Officer of the Human Rights Campaign, and the Executive Director of NJ Head Start Association.