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How the War on Young Voters Is Deteriorating Our Democracy

Young voter participation has been on the rise. But at the same time we are now seeing a concerted state-by-state effort to construct new barriers and even reverse existing laws that created greater access.
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Is there anything more fundamental to our democracy and country than the right to vote? Should we not protect and value this right, and work hard to ensure that all Americans ages 18 and older are able to participate without undue burden?

I watch people in the Middle East fighting -- and even dying -- for the right to be heard, and to cast a ballot in free and fair elections. I watch and I wonder: How do we find ourselves in a fight to keep the rights we already have in the U.S.?

It's true that without the participation of many, power will consolidate into the hands of the few. The inverse is also true: When many participate, it threatens those in power.

Young voter participation has been on the rise. We should be celebrating and continuing to advance the participation of our country's youngest voters. Instead, as The Washington Post reports on its front page this morning, we are seeing a concerted state-by-state effort to construct new barriers and even reverse existing laws that created greater access.

It's a blatant attempt to make it harder for young people to vote. What kind of democracy is this?

Every four years when our country is focused on a Presidential election, there are obligatory stories written expressing outrage about flaws in our voting system. Why aren't we automatically registered? Why is it so hard to register and why can't we use new technologies to make it easier? Why are certain groups of people being intimidated at the polls? Who is really cheating? What in the world is a hanging chad?

Yet when the ballot box winners are announced -- whether seamlessly or via Supreme Court decision -- most people move on to the next headlines and challenges, tacitly agreeing to postpone reform for another election cycle. Who has the time and resources to devote to such a massive undertaking while there are pressing issues like the economy, wars, education, immigration and civil rights to tackle?

Maybe there will come a time when our country will be stabilized, and we'll have a real opportunity to upgrade the voting system. Unfortunately, we all know that one problem solved is quickly replaced by another. Meanwhile, we've let an antiquated paper-based voter registration and elections system continue to burden the voters, the elections administrators, and our democracy.

Many of us envision a cutting edge 21st century elections process, where we utilize the technology we have to protect the integrity of our elections while simultaneously making the voting process more accessible. Some great advances have been made in the states with online voter registration, Same Day and Election Day registration and more.

Those advances are now under attack, and instead of moving forward, we are being propelled backwards. We're seeing laws introduced to state legislatures across the country that will make it more difficult for people to vote, especially college students and the poor.

Young people are fighting back.

In New Hampshire, College Democrats and College Republicans at Dartmouth have joined forces to fight against House Bill 176, which would redefine "domicile" residence for students as the state in which they lived prior to moving to campus and forcing them to vote absentee in states where they no longer reside. As Dartmouth student leaders Sy Mukherjee and Rich Sunderland noted in a recent Rock the Vote blog, New Hampshire State House Speaker William O'Brien has actually said that college students vote, "too liberal," "with their emotions," and that they lack sufficient "life experience" to vote in the state.

In Madison, University of Wisconsin student Sam Polstein is leading the charge against SB-6, a law that would not accept student IDs as a valid form of identification and would force students to pay $28 for a state-issued ID.

In Missouri, North Carolina, Nebraska, Iowa, Maine and many other states, there are young people like Sy, Rich and Sam fighting similar legislation. They should not be in this position.

The problem we face now is this simple: Some people don't want a lot of people voting, while others want to make it easier for more people to participate.

Rock the Vote believes the voting process should encourage participation, not make is harder.

The ideal solution would be automatic, permanent registration for all American citizens ages 18 and older. It's the best way to ensure that all Americans can exercise their voting rights.

As we work toward that goal, we're calling for states to adopt systems that truly serve the next generation electorate, incorporating protections and innovations like expanding early voting programs, allowing Election Day or Same Day Registration, offering pre-registration to 16- and 17-year-olds, online registration, and enacting state versions of the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act.

We will also stand up against any attempt to make it harder to participate.

Some people may think students are "foolish" and they make it difficult for those in office to get re-elected, but it is the constitutional right of all citizens 18-and-older to cast a ballot in this country. We outlawed the suppression of voters who threaten the ability of those who want to stay in power a long time ago. Perhaps these legislators' time and energy would be better spent appealing to young people and proposing solutions that create additional jobs, rather than pursuing costly and restrictive voting measures that seem designed to help them keep their own jobs.

To find out about what's happening in your state and take action, join our Voter Suppression is Un-American campaign at We'll make sure you get the news you need to stay informed and active on this issue.

We cannot wait until November of 2012 to express our shock and frustration with a broken system. We will not stand by quietly while young people, especially college students, face laws that make it harder for them to vote and are called "foolish" for voting their minds.

Last time I checked, that was the point of a democracy.