JONESBORO, Ark. — Vote. It matters.
Every citizen in the United States can voice their opinion at the polls. Yet, every election cycle, Americans choose not to exercise this privilege. Instead, they stay quiet, hushing their voices in complacency, failing to complete their civic duty.
In the 2016 presidential election, only around 60% of eligible voters went to the polls. For younger voters — defined here as any voter between 18 and 29 years old —that number plummets to just over 48%. The abysmal number represents a generation that will reap the consequences of elections they choose not to participate in.
This story originally appeared in the Sept. 23 edition of The Herald. You can view the full story HERE.
Ryan Baldwin, president of the newly founded VOTE A-State organization at Arkansas State University, wants to increase that number, especially in Northeast Arkansas. His organization has been working virtually around the clock to help residents of the area register to vote, no matter their age or political affiliation. However, getting young voters to the polls is the top priority.
Baldwin reiterated the low turnout numbers, citing fewer than 50% of young people vote compared to upwards of 70% of older people. He said young voices matter as much as those of any demographic, but young people simply don’t use them. He added if young people want to see change at the local, state or national level, the trend must change. People who vote decide the direction of the country.
VOTE A-State has been actively working with organizations across campus to host registration drives ahead of the Oct. 5 deadline to register in Arkansas. These groups include both the Young Democrats and College Republicans, as well as Volunteer A-State and the Black Student Association. They share a simple, common goal. All of the aforementioned want students to exercise their right to have their voices heard in the 2020 election, and in future elections as well.
But can these organizations really make an impact this close to the election?
“That’s the hope,” Baldwin said.
LOCAL VS NATIONAL
Though presidential elections get the overwhelming majority of media coverage, the outcome of the race for top executive is arguably less impactful to the individual than the outcome of local elections.
For example, two of the biggest cities in Northeast Arkansas — Jonesboro and Paragould — will elect new mayors in November. Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin is stepping down after three terms while Paragould Mayor Mike Gaskill iscalling it quits after 23 years. These positions will impact the residents of Northeast Arkansas on a daily basis for years to come.
“A lot of people don’t consider how important their vote is, especially in local elections. A lot of people think the President is the deciding factor — and it is important for the country — but the president doesn’t know what you need on a community level,” said LexieHendrix, a member of VOTE A-State. “He doesn’t know if your neighborhood needs more funding for schools. That can only be known on a local level. That’s where our vote matters.”
As much as people focus on the presidential races — and for good reason, of course — they may fail to realize the importance of these local races and how they affect the communities in which they live.
Hendrix isn’t alone in her belief in the importance of local elections. Markus Pillow, motivation chair for VOTE A-State, shares the sentiment.
“Looking at how many people vote in the country, not just young people, it’s less than 50% on average. People say voting doesn’t matter when half the people don’t even vote,” Pillow said. “The office of president — which is what most people focus on — doesn’t have as big of an impact on their daily lives. There are so many local elections decided by five or 10 votes, and those actually directly affect (members of the community).”
Both the Young Democrats and College Republicans have been promoting voter registration among college-aged voters in recent weeks. For both organizations, getting voters to the polls is the top priority. Partisan politics remains important, of course, but promoting the democratic process remains the ultimate goal.
Noah Haynes, president of the A-State College Republicans, said his organization is focused on getting people to the polls more than anything else. Partisan politics comes second.
“Obviously we want to get Republican candidates elected. We do have political goals, but the message we’ve been trying to spread is ‘vote.’ We don’t care who you vote for, as long as you vote. That’s how our democracy succeeds,” Haynes said. “Once we show people that voting is a civic duty and teach them how to register and how to vote, that’s when we get into actual issues.”
As a nationally chartered organization, the A-State College Republicans focus on getting members of their party elected across the state and country. But on a simpler level, they want to promote voter turnout, no matter the party affiliation.
Macy Walker, president of the A-State Young Democrats, expressed the same when discussing the organization she leads. Party politics play a large role, but voter turnout fuels the organization.
“We just want to get as many people registered to vote as we can,” Walker said. “We try to educate people on candidates, especially at the local level. I feel as if most people have their minds made up about presidential campaigns, but we want to encourage and educate people about local elections.”
The Young Democrats are partnering with the A-State chapter of the NAACP to host registration drives every Saturday up until the registration deadline, with a focus on minority neighborhoods. Though they have a roster of roughly 80 students, Walker said only around 30 are what she would call “active” members.
“Voting is the least you can do. It’s the bare minimum in terms of civic duty. It sounds pretty negative, but it’s true,” Walker said. “People truly do care about issues, but it isn’t reflected in their actions. It’s like performative activism. I mean, any activism is good, but posting (on social media) doesn’t help. You have to actually take action to get things done.”
BEYOND PARTY POLITICS
Around the world, governments silence their citizens, giving them no control of their future. Yet, in the United States where freedom of expression is not just protected but encouraged, citizens stay willfully quiet.
Haynes maintains a positive outlook in terms of the democratic process in the country. To him, it’s what sets the United States apart on the world stage.
“This could be a controversial statement, but we live in a great country. Part of that is that the people have a voice. That’s such an amazing privilege,” Haynes said. “You’d be doing yourself a disservice by not exercising it. I would rather have someone vote (against a Republican candidate) than to not vote at all.”
Dean MacDonald, vice president of VOTE A-State, said the community matters the most, not partisanship. He said how voters identify doesn’t matter, but expressing those beliefs at the polls does. He wants his organization to focus first on people and voting education. Whether those people are liberal, conservative, Democrat or Republican falls to the wayside. He noted how diverse Northeast Arkansas is, and how people from all walks of life need to be inspired to voice their opinions this November.
YOUR VOICE MATTERS
From city council positions to the office of president, every vote counts. Whether citizens believe their vote matters is up to each individual to decide. But every vote does, in fact, matter.
In the United States, there is one sure-fire way to use your voice. Protests catch the attention of the media. Social movements bring awareness to underlying issues that need to be addressed. But until there are individuals in office to back those ideas, there can be no real change.
No matter where an individual falls on the political spectrum, if change is to happen in any direction, it all starts at the polls.
Arkansas voters must register by Oct. 5. This election has the potential to shape the future of Jonesboro, Paragould, the entire state of Arkansas and the United States as a whole. Voters will decide that future. It goes far beyond the presidential race and partisan politics. Local elections matter. State elections matter. National elections matter. Educating citizens on issues creates a well-informed public. If that well-informed public floods the polls, the people take their power back.
“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”- Abraham Lincoln